Stop making things seem simple

I have long been, and continue to be a staunch supporter of SaaS in government. The experiences too common, the budgets too tight, and the track record too poor to expect a custom solution to always work. (In fact less that 70% do.)

That said, it’s worth noting that there’s an unintentional consequence from the emergence of SaaS: it makes things seem simple. When they are really not. Not at all. (And I’m not going to name names.)

No where more so in the data, open data, and data analytics sector.

I honestly believe the lie being bandied about by “data intelligence” or “data analytics” systems will in fact set us back decades. Instead of doing the hard work to really become an open government, not just a portal, we sneak away tens of thousands here and there to give the appearance of transparency, engagement, and responsiveness. Later, we’ll have to take stock of all these contracts and realize we have to spend 2X the years to undo the damage and re-architect the entire system.

We are victims to our own optimism and fools to their clever marketing.

I was victim to this, when a company offered to move all of our city’s core data into an interoperable, app-friendly, simple platform. We were promised dozens of free apps out of the box, and all we had to do was unwrap the data feeds. But their services side promised to do that. In fact they had automated tools for many of the existing apps. All would be fine.



Moving data from an internal, on-premise service into a public-facing, cloud-based system is hard. Hard policy. Hard processes. And hard technology.

But that’s not what the SaaS data vendors would have you believe. Simply plug and play, it’ll all work fine.

Yes. There is now a public facing website that links to data, visualizes some of it even.

But all that data was in fact already mechanized for public consumption because it had to be for planning, FOIA, etc.

Don’t trust anyone saying that taking your internal data online and publicly available will be just a click of a few buttons. It’s not that easy. You can’t just cross your fingers and hope all the data coming in from all your city’s sources will magically connect. That’s folly.

This is hard. Hard work.

It’s hard work worth doing, but still hard. And we should all acknowledge the hard work being done by Chief Data Officers, systems integrators, product managers, database administrators, and mainframe operators — not to say the cybersecurity personnel and their tests that ensure this “easy” openness or aggregation doesn’t throw the entire system into risk.

Important things are hard to do. Let’s not act like they aren’t.

tech optimist and political phil nerd. hacker, writer & maker: fmr CDO, @lamayorsoffice; @google; @codeforamerica.

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