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GeoWeb and eGovernance

The recent economic meltdown in the United States and Europe has not only brought in increased government regulation in the financial sector, but has also re-invigorated the discussion as to the role and extent of government intervention in society in general.

When one thinks of government "regulation", most people probably think of rules, all the ones that they may need to be aware of, and the consequent increase in the complexity of their lives.  Those with a background in control systems may see regulation more in terms of mechanisms to control the behaviours of the citizens, the economy, or the impact on the environment.  Rules play a role of course but, seen in the broader context of regulating activities, such rules are just the means to an end, and less visible less overt mechanisms may also be available.

It does not seem too far-fetched at this point to posit that we are now moving into an era of increased government intervention in society, and it is thus important that we begin to think seriously about what governance means.  What are the functions of governance?  What are the requirements for good governance?  And, since this is an IT oriented blog, how can information technology assist us in providing good governance for our society?

What does it mean to govern?  The English word govern has roots in Latin (gubernare) meaning to pilot or steer (as in a ship), or to direct or guide.  The modern definition of the word also has the connotation of authority and control over others.  The ability to "guide or steer" usually has required authority; however, in a modern state this can mean much less the authority of an individual over others, and much more the use of mechanisms that regulate events in a way that society as a whole deems to be desirable.  We would all agree that we are governed by the laws of gravity and do not view that as the imposition of authority.  Similarily, we readily submit ourselves to the laws of the aircraft's control system (and often also the human pilot) to guide us from one location to another.  In neither case do we think of ourselves as under the authority of the pilot or the airplane.  Both the pilot and the aircraft are, in this sense, under our authority as they do what we want by carrying us safely from one place to another.  In a modern society, we can come to think of governance as putting in place the regulatory mechanisms to achieve the ends which we individually and collectively deem to be desirable.  How can an information infrastructure help in this process?

What is good governance?  If we take the airplane example, we might say that the ability to closely track objectives is the first requirement.  If the airplane fails to deliver us safely, on time, and to the correct location, we would not think the governance to be very good.  In the case of "governing" society, we ask more.  We want not only to know where we are going, and what corrective actions we are taking, but why the "control system" believes these actions will result in the right outcome.  In fact, quite unlike the case of the aircraft, we are often more interested in "transparency" and "accountability" than we are with the outcome.  This likely reflects the greater complexity of the governance task, and the consequent concern for the impact of nepotism, ignorance, and incompetence.  How can an information infrastructure help with this?

How can information infrastructures assist in the provision of governance and, in particular, help to ensure GOOD governance? To address this question in a more concrete manner, consider the issue of the management of agricultural land.  Throughout the world, the best agricultural land is rapidly being consumed for urban development, with a consequent loss of productive land for farming, and additional problems in terms of salination, flooding, pollution, and destruction of soils.  Let us assume that a government decides that it wishes to preserve, and even increase, the amount of productive farm land.  This is a measurable objective.  A simplistic measure would be simply to provide a zoning-like restriction and regulate the flow of land into or out of the bank of land zoned for agriculture.  The difficulty with such an approach is that non-productive land can often be traded for more productive land.

With information technology we can provide a more sophisticated land bank, based on measured parameters that support agricultural use, including things like soil types, soil moisture, salinity, rainfall, temperatures, etc.  In this way, we can ensure that land in the land bank really is good for farming and even for specific types of crops.  Of course with e-Governance we can go still further and prohibit or permit land transfers (this then ties in to the land management system) only if they satisfy specific criterion.  The decision is then not up to some official but to the system itself.  Of course, there is freedom for falsification of input information; however, automated tools can also serve to provide at least reasonableness checks, and to alert the conformance aspect of government when an unusual circumstance is detected.  In the future, we might even rely on eBay-like mechanisms to provide user feedback to the system.  To ensure accountability and transparency, the information infrastructure would log all requests for movement of land in or out of the land bank, and all such transactions would be publically visible.  The information infrastructure can directly connect objectives (increase in agricultural land) to actions (land transfers), and provide the monitoring to assist with accountability and transparency.

In the longer term, we can begin to think of eGovernance as the creation of mechanisms to regulate human activity that we build into the fabric of our society, and which can be changed through a meta-regulation framework tied to the electoral process.  I believe that we will see an extension of the notion of governance to incorporate a more direct democracy, with a diffusion of what constitutes authority to a broader range of actors than is currently the case.  This will take the participation of users in the sense of Web 2.0 to a new and more important level.

To achieve this long term vision of eGovernance will require that we begin to build the GeoWeb as eGovernment, not simply in support of specific vertical problems (e.g. forest management, or emergency measure) but broadly, in support of information exchange across all branches of government and society.