I attended the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Summit today and enjoyed listening to many of the insightful speakers.  One of them was Clay Shirky; who is popular on the tech conference circuit.

He talked about how organizations have tried to harness their community members to use the data and services that they provide turning them to them to the public to develop applications and new uses for their services.  Shirky cited Apps for Democracy as a success story in this area; over four dozen applications have been developed to harness government data.  On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times tried to invite its readers to help write editorials through a wiki; this was a failure since the space was used to post information that was either not useful or vulgar (ie links to porn).

Shirky argues that when organizations invite others to participate in their work, they need to have a “social contract” that is complete enough to provide a purpose for the applications and new uses but not complete enough that it stymies participants from coming up with new ideas that the organization that did not think of.  Further, by limiting creativity, this chips away from the participants’ motivation to work.  According to Shirky, the Apps for Democracy contract was sufficient, and the LA Times contract was too complete.  The newspaper already had an idea of what its users would produce, and it was embarrassed that the experiment didn’t turn out well after advertising it.

Shirky said that organizations that undertake such initiatives need to keep three things in mind:

  1. Expect surprises; allow and trust people to be creative
  2. Don’t take credit or advertise the initiative until the results are understood
  3. Allow people to use their own motivations