A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at Startup Policy Lab’s first Tech, Policy, & Beer event. The topic was open data in San Francisco. Following some fantastic presentations by DataSF, Exygy, (all of whom are techies), I dropped the legal bomb: None of the tech matters unless the law says so. Technology is shaped by our laws. So before we can leverage technology to truly transform government, we need good laws.

The civic tech community has put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to transform government. The effect has been to generate a lot of great awareness. But a lot of our work has failed to have an enduring impact. This is because improving service delivery is not a path to transform government. Transforming government means fundamentally updating how the government operates day-to-day. These types of changes are legal.

To understand how the law and technology co-exist, I use an IP stack analogy. It’s the best way I’ve developed to convey what role the law plays in government technology. I use this slide to help explain — to those more technology inclined than legal trained — how technology is thought about and implemented in government.

How this analogy works

The kernel of the stack is law; for example, updating a city’s administrative code. The law defines what is and is not allowed. Most importantly, the law directs funding and resources to a given idea, whether that’s open data, servers, or application development.

Moving up a level is the machinery of government. Nobody talks about policy, but policies implement the law. Policies set out the day to day activities of government officials: who has what responsibility for what, when, and how they will do it.

For example, in San Francisco, the Open Data Policy legislation requires the City to have a Chief Data Officer (CDO). Once appointed, the CDO standardized the licenses to publish open data: The City went from 7 to 1.

It’s only now that we start to touch technology. But this technology is the infrastructure created and maintained by government agencies for use by citizens, private industry, and other government agencies. We are still inside the Deathstar (government).

Finally, we’re at the endpoint: Once the data is in a form that can be managed, we get to the applications. The area that all civic tech folks love. This is our bread and butter. Notice, however, that we are three steps removed from where we started. And that’s the point: Applications by themselves are the end product built on a legal chassis.

Openness is a value we must cultivate

From legaltech to open data, I have been part of the civic tech community for years. It’s a community that wants to transform how government works, to make it more open and effective. But we can’t afford to ignore law and policy law because it’s scary. It’s time for us to grok the law if we want better data-driven and open government.