The Coalition of Things: Parody with a Point

Open Data

The Coalition of Things: Parody with a Point

We hope you’re enjoying today’s announcement. We’re sorry to break the news: yes, the Coalition of Things is a parody. There is no tech trade association with the slogan All of the Things.

But some initiatives in the real world of tech policy are nearly as vacuous as our faux organization.

Cloud, Big Data, IoT: trendy but not actionable

First, trendy concepts like cloud computing, Big Data, and the Internet of Things attract lots of attention, but don’t actually require government policymakers to do anything.

I was once invited to deliver a webinar presentation about “XBRL in the Cloud.” I accepted the invitation. I always love to talk about government data standards like XBRL!

But I struggled to figure out how to connect the XBRL open data format to the concept of cloud storage. Anything can be stored in the Cloud, regardless of whether it’s structured or not, open or not. 

Eventually I realized that the webinar hosts didn’t know or care what either “XBRL” or “the Cloud” meant. They only knew both were trendy concepts, so combining them might attract viewers.

Not long after, a group of lobbyists started a trade association called the Big Data Coalition. They told prospective member companies that it was time to introduce the data analytics industry to Washington policymakers. But they had no legislation to recommend, no policy changes to pursue. Nobody joined the Big Data Coalition, the organization quickly folded, and yet the data analytics industry – public sector and private sector – continued to grow. Congress didn’t have to do anything to make Big Data happen. There was never a need for a Big Data Coalition.

Growing awareness of the Internet of Things has produced a similar phenomenon. Tech industry organizations are hosting events, testifying before Congress, and producing a flurry of white papers. But their recommendations aren’t meaningful, because the Internet of Things isn’t in danger and doesn’t need to be regulated.

Last year one Congressional committee was told that the government urgently needs to set up an Internet of Things advisory council, establish best practices, set up public-private partnerships, and expand broadband access. Those recommendations amount to (1) meetings, (2) meetings, (3) meetings, and (4) money. They’re so innocuous that they didn’t need to be made!

Are you a collaborative innovator?

Second, buzzwords like “innovation” and “collaboration” obscure a lack of substance. Innovation and collaboration are good. But they are means, not ends.

Policymakers and tech industry leaders should always strive for innovation, because that’s how to find new solutions to problems. But innovation, by itself, solves nothing. And centuries of social science and common sense confirm: collaboration leads to better results than picking fights. But collaboration, by itself, is not a result.

Last year our Coalition tried an experiment. In a promotional email for an event, we intentionally strung together as many buzzwords as we could. (“Calling all open data innovators, aggregators, synergists, crowdsourcers, frameworkers, and thought leaders — let’s collaborate.”) To our amused dismay, that email became one of our top-performing promotions of the year.

Untrendy but necessary: the campaign for data standards

The Internet of Things is real. But it doesn’t require government action. It’s a distraction from the tech issues that do need reform.

It wasn’t hard to create the Coalition of Things. We just had to grab a trendy concept, sling some buzzwords, and throw together a website with the scrollable design du jour. It was great fun!

Our day jobs are harder.

The Data Coalition seeks to transform government information from disconnected documents into standardized, open data. (Yes, “transformation” is a bit of a buzzword. But bear with me.)

Once government information becomes available as open data, all sorts of good things happen. Citizens can hold policymakers accountable, managers can deploy analytics more cheaply, and regulated entities can automate compliance tasks that used to be manual.

Pursuing these goals requires us to fight lots of obscure and untrendy battles for data standards.

There’s nothing “innovative” about adopting data standards. Governments have been trying to keep track of things since the Babylonians. (In fact, the Babylonian government did a better job of using available technology to identify private-sector entities than ours does.)

It is difficult to standardize and publish government data. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have to wage a policy campaign for it.

This campaign outlasted the cloud craze, is transcending Big Data, and will still be necessary when nobody ever says “Internet of Things.”

Standardizing and publishing data will solve real problems. We’ll keep working on it.

Next time you read a tech policy white paper, ask yourself – where’s the substance? If you can’t find any beneath the buzzwords, realize the paper might as well say All of the Things.