Historic moment as Ireland’s coders get to grips with US$3trn problem

17 Jan 2014

Dublin Castle

Coders, business people and civil servants were told by the CIO of Palo Alto, California – himself an Irishman – that by embracing open government and open data, Ireland is opening up to a potentially US$3trn global economic opportunity.

At Dublin Castle last night the second-ever Code for Ireland took place in front of a packed hall of 400 people consisting of software coders, civil servants, and private and semi-State professionals.

Code for Ireland, an international member of the influential Code for America movement, aims to connect citizens, government and community software developers to develop apps and services that will enable government to become more efficient.

Present on the night was Dubliner Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto, and Catherine Bracy, who heads up Code for America’s international network.

The first Code for Ireland meet-up that took place at Facebook’s Dublin headquarters in November has already led to the commencement of three app projects, including an emergency app that shows where all the defibrillators in Dublin are located, a queueing app aimed at avoiding long waits at the motor tax office, and a business location assessment app that will guide businesses on the best place to locate based on zoning, available property and other businesses in the area.

“I think tonight is a kind of historic moment – something that has the potential for making a really positive change in Ireland,” Reichental told the audience. “You came along to be part of this. (Former Apple CEO) Steve Jobs discovered midway through his life that you can’t wait for others to do it and then reap the benefits, you could instead be the person that makes the change. So let’s make the change and let Ireland have the benefit of that.”

Restoring trust between citizens and government

San Francisco-based Bracy, who also worked on the Obama election campaign, pointed out that trust between citizens and government has been eroded over the past number of decades and efforts that involve the community in solving problems are the key to restoring that lost trust.

“I remember when I was in school my mom would pick me up and then rush to the bank on a Friday or else we wouldn’t have money for the weekend. Today digital technology has revolutionised the world of personal finance. That change has happened across every sector that we can imagine – how we learn, how we consume entertainment – but the one area it hasn’t changed yet is government.”

Bracy pointed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the US as “a symbol of what is wrong in the US. Everyone has to go at some time and it is a bad experience. The irony is their motto is ‘driving change’. Why is this the case in a world where we now have the sum of the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands and this is how citizens have to interact with government?

“The internet has democratised everything but democracy itself,” Bracy said.

But change is afoot, as governments and civil servants themselves realise this situation of inefficiency and digital disconnect can no longer continue. It’s simply not sustainable, Bracy said. However, many government officials are afraid of failure.

Bracy pointed to the work of the Centre of New Urban Mechanics in the US. The centre is a kind of risk aggregator inside government that has the task of taking risks by deploying projects to see if they work before they become a news scandal. “Their mandate is to fail and experiment most of the time, and that way everyone gets to keep their jobs.”

Engaging the community


Catherine Bracy, head of Code for America’s international network, speaks at Dublin Castle last night

The key, Bracy urged, is to build new channels for participation by citizens themselves.

She pointed to the redesign of the city of Honolulu’s website that centred on answering citizens’ basic questions. The challenge, she said, was populating the site with content, and citizens themselves organised a ‘write-athon’. The community wrote all the FAQs in the one afternoon.

She said the model was so successful that it was redeployed in her own community of Oakland in California.

“That feeling you get by the simple act of drafting an answer to a simple question is empowering. It’s hard to overstate. It is these kind of actions that make communities stronger and help to strengthen democracy.”

Another example of community influencing local government is Discover BPS (Boston Public Schools), whereby citizens called on the Boston authorities to step away from a Byzantine system and instead create a better interface for helping parents select schools in a district of 59,000 students and 135 schools.

“The team of community and government working together resulted in something better that requires just two pieces of information – address and grade level. The city is now maintaining and running the site, which is pretty much a Yelp for schools. This process restored and rebuilt trust.”

Avoiding IT disasters

Bracy said IT disasters in government only serve to erode public trust and she pointed to the website that was meant to launch Obama’s reform of healthcare in the US – healthcare.gov – which broke down on its first day.

“It cost US$600m to build and it doesn’t work.”

Her observation calls to mind the current drama in Ireland surrounding Irish Water and the €50n spent on consultancy fees so far with nothing to show for it.

“This problem is endemic. Ninety-four per cent of US IT projects that cost more than US$10m fail, are late and over-budget. This is a scandal and is unacceptable.

“You guys have the power to come together and solve this problem in Ireland,” she said.

The US$3trn opportunity

Reichental pointed out that the whole story of e-government needs to change. “All the things we talk about in terms of government is mostly about financial deficits, but there is a surplus of data.”

He called on Ireland to create models that other cities and governments around the world can emulate. “Is this the right thing to do? Yes. Is it hard to do? No. Whatever you build has to be machine-consumable and there are plenty of low-cost open-source platforms to do that.

“It requires effort – it’s a choice between paving a road at a time or putting up a platform making available data on where the road repairs are needed. In the medium or long-term eventually things will get better, become more efficient and cost a lot less.”

Reichental said the key is open data and that this movement can be harnessed to boost the economy and create jobs.

“The solutions you build could be worth US$3trn to the world market – there is a great story for Ireland if we can turn this into an economic opportunity by opening data and transforming government.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years