Will the iPad pave the path towards e-Government? A comment to Andrea DiMaio

Andrea DiMaio has recently published two posts — Apple’s iPad Could Do For Governments More than the One-Laptop-Per-Child, Could the iPad Redefine Public Service Delivery? — about the hypothetical impact that the new device by Apple, the iPad, will have on e-Government and citizen participation in general. My point is not to show disagreement — I agree more than disagree with DiMaio’s statements — but to (a) put a grain of salt and, especially, (b) to move the focus from the device towards the concepts.

And I’ll begin with a strong agreement: the iPad is very likely to do more than the One-Laptop-Per-Child, just because the OLPC is doing very little for education, as I think is clearly explained in the Framing the Digital Divide in Higher Education monograph. But it is also possible that the iPad will do as little as the OLPC, just because it’s not about devices.

Pieter Verdegem co-authored two interesting articles — User-centered E-Government in practice: A comprehensive model for measuring user satisfaction, Profiling the non-user: Rethinking policy initiatives stimulating ICT acceptance — that, along with the aforementioned monograph, can help to centre the debate.

Just for the sake of clarity let us look at some points raised by the monograph authors, Verdegem and DiMaio about access to e-Government (including the “e-” part), keeping in mind that I fully share DiMaio’s vision on what e-Government should be and the conviction that, somehow, we’ll get to that point.

Affordability

This still is a key issue for many people not to go online, hence not to use e-Government services. It is decreasing in importance and becoming almost marginal in higher income countries. But. While a desktop/laptop + broadband connectivity might be affordable, the addition of a second device + the addition of a second broadband service (3G or whatever) is definitely not affordable for many many people.

Yes, I am assuming having both devices and duplication of Internet access services. But I think this will be the scenario in the short and middle run, for the simple reason that the iPad is not a typing-aimed device or a hard-computing-power device, besides the fact that I do not believe in quantum leaps in computer adoption (i.e. in the short run, iPad users will be computer users, not late-adopters).

Skills

Claire from liberTIC recently commented about lack of skills playing havoc on e-Democracy and Democracy at large.

I think the iPad — as its i-predecessors — will make computer usage simple, much simpler than before. But e-Government is not only about computer usage, but much more. As I introduced in Towards a comprehensive definition of digital skills and Goverati: New competencies for politics, government and participation, there is much field in the area of digital competences that the iPad just won’t and cannot address. And, as time goes by, technological literacy is less of an issue, which is were the iPad could make a major contribution.

Availability

Which leads to where the Gordian knot is: existence and access to content and services. I fully agree that the iPad can contribute to ease access to online public services through its applications, and I am already looking forward this to happen. But the prerequisite is either open data or open application programming interfaces (APIs). There already exist devices and applications to access online public services. And their successes and failures have mostly depended (a) on the richness of the data they could access and (b) the degree in which they could make an impact or contribute to a change. We take for granted that iPad applications will play magic, but the magic is in the data, not the device (though magic wands always help, let’s admit it).

Awareness and peopleware

But things can exist, be accessible, be affordable and people know how to use them, and still don’t make any use of them. This is, indeed, the tragedy of e-Government (and Internet adoption at large) today in higher income countries: I either don’t know what’s out there or frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. The iPad can raise awareness, and the more friendly user interface will help, but I haven’t seen much success in iPhone educational or e-Government applications being used massively.

I honestly doubt that the problem of e-Government (lack of) pervasiveness is a matter of the device, but of peopleware. If Obama succeeded it was not because of the Internet, but because of “hope”. And the Internet was there to deliver it, of course, and to channel people’s hope back. If Ushahidi succeeded in Kenya it was not because of SMSs and mashups, but because of the basic substrate upon which these were erected. I find AppsForDemocracy not only an amazing initiative, but amazing things in themselves and I look forward the day they will be used massively. But, so far, I have the sense it’s just for us the usual e-Government suspects.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Will the iPad pave the path towards e-Government? A comment to Andrea DiMaio” In ICTlogy, #76, January 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=3307

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6 Comments to “Will the iPad pave the path towards e-Government? A comment to Andrea DiMaio” »

  1. I totally agree that devices won’t change things by themselves, and that the real challenge is really around data and engagement. I particularly like your point about AppsForDemocracy and the likes to be still something for eGov experts (and – I would add – folks with a political agenda).

    My contention is that if the iPad is sufficiently compelling as a device, and developers start coming up with very new ways of interacting with increasingly available information, we may get to the tipping point, where people turn from passive information consumer to active information producers (and service co-providers). They will demand more information and more services because they now see the way to make use of those.

    Besides that, just including constituencies that because of demographics or attitude toward technology have been on the “wrong” side of the divide would be a great achievement in itself.

  2. I’m convinced that the success of e-Government services will come when based on pull- rather than push-strategies. You sport because you want to be healthy, not because the government builds a public gym; and same with online services.

    In this sense, what’s the “pull power” of the iPad? Or, in your own words, where exactly is the tipping point where we shift from push/passive to pull/active information managers and how will the iPad help in moving the threshold downwards?

    In my own opinion, I see the iPad as a great enabler, but no catalyst.

  3. I am not sure. The more you spend time online (with whatever device is most compelling for you) the more you can be “profiled” – like it or not from a privacy standpoint. Therefore government will be able to push services and information you are most likely to need. Today the best services are of a push nature (I send the prefilled tax form for you to amend and confirm, you do not need to remember).

    I think that devices like the iPad will help blur the boundary between push and pull, between information you get and information you create and share.

    No silver bullet, but a decisive shift toward what I call the “symmetry of government 2.0” (which – in your terms – is the balance between push and pull).

  4. “I think that devices like the iPad will help blur the boundary between push and pull”

    I sincerely wish you’re right with that and the relationships between citizens and institutions are smoother and, why not, more intensive and balanced :)

  5. I’d just like to add a not-so-small point: the iPad is [very] closed technology. More closed than anything we’ve seen in the last five years by Microsoft. More than anything Nokia or Google have ever done. No browser but Safari is ever going to run on it. One single SDK. One single legal outlet to deliver software, under strict control by a single corporation…

    I’m quite ready to accept defeat, but I would really HATE people forgetting this fact after years of bashing (with a lot of reason) a certain company in the Northeast Pacific coast of the US…

    Specially if the subject is as important as e-Government. I believe that any closed technology should not even be considered in the discussion. Maybe it’s just that I’m grumpy…

  6. César, you’re right in acknowledging grumpyness ;))) but the point you raise about closeness is actually very relevant.

    I think Andrea and I stayed just one step behind and were initially concerned about mere access.

    But, definitely, after access is granted, it is not a minor issue how this access is granted.

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