How Platform Thinking is Revolutionizing Public Service Delivery in Big Cities: Seoul’s Open Data Initiative

In March 2016, I took a group of fellow Stanford Business School students on a trip to South Korea: the tech hub of Asia, home of Samsung and LG, and the country with the highest penetration of smartphones. Technology is the backbone of the country’s hockey stick growth from the 1970's (when it was poorer then its neighbor, North Korea). Naturally, tech-centricity is a top priority for the government as well.

On the first day of our trip, we were greeted by Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon (who gladly invited us for a selfie like a true techie.) We visited the Seoul Metropolitan Government as our first stop to learn more about how governments can act as a platform. The most representative reform is its Open data initiative called the “Seoul Digital Plaza,” which we were able to hear more about.

What is a platform, and why does it matter?

A platform is a set of technologies or standards upon which applications, technologies and processes are built. Platforms can include multiple layers upon layers: for example, AT&T is a platform for the iPhone, which is a platform for Facebook — which is also a platform for user facing applications like Zynga. They also tend to create ecosystems with network effects, with monopolistic tendencies.

Platforms enable applications or even platforms to be built by commoditizing infrastructure. By standardizing common assets, platforms dramatically decrease transaction costs — allowing for innovative products and services to be built.

Governments have a unique role in creating platforms that enable innovations. Tim O’Reilly famously described what it means for governments to be a platform:

[The] government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic action.
This is a radical departure from the existing model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.”[5] We pay our taxes, we expect services. .. What if, instead of a vending machine, we thought of government as the manager of a marketplace?

Seoul City’s Open Data Initiative: “Seoul Open Plaza”

The Seoul Metropolitan government’s Open Data initiative is a fantastic example for what it means for governments to become a platform.

The city launched the “Seoul Open Plaza” initiative in 2012, and has made 150+ types of datasets available to the public. There are three layers. The source data — derived from internal administrative database of various divisions within the government — that are standardized; the database management layer that manages the quality of data; and finally the “open architecture” layer where the data are made available to developers and citizens. Open API enables the development of various applications.

The Seoul Open Plaza is an example of a platform where the government commoditized an asset to decrease the cost of accessing data. As a result, citizens have become participants that build on value added services that were traditionally monopolized by the government. Hundreds of products and services emerged using the free database in all sorts of different industries (e.g., healthcare, safety, shopping, etc.. you name it!). Here are two examples:

(1) Parking app: “Parking Park”

The Parking Park app helps users locate parking spaces nearby using the Seoul Open Plaza database. It includes value-add services such as parking payment through the app, and alarm services if the parking spot has time constraints.

(2) Hospital recommendation service: “Medi Latte”

By using open data on hospital information (e.g., location, category, number of doctors, time of operation, peak time) and using proprietary data (e.g., reviews), Medi Latte gives personalized medical services recommendations. The app provides other value add services such as: reminders, search, and health information services.

What’s more — the government can increase the quality of its own public service delivery through such an open and big data initiative. Here is an example:

(3) Route optimization of the Night Bus

The Seoul city hall, in collaboration with major network providers, analyzed a meta data of 3 billion cases of transportation usage to set up routes and destinations that were most useful for people using public transportation after midnight. It also set up the bus deployment schedule according to peoples’ usage patterns. Within a few weeks of launch, the service recorded 200,000 passengers per month.

As illustrated in these examples, developers and the government alike were able to create applications & services based on the open data platform. The cost of creating such value added services were dramatically decreased because of the availability of data — a primary example of the beneficial ramifications of when a government creates an effective platform.

Conclusion

Governments need to think how to become more like a platform rather than a vending machine.

But there are very real challenges to moving governments forward in this direction. The transition not only involves technology adaptations — but profound organizational and behavioral changes as well. Like in the case of the Seoul government, strong and visionary leadership that prioritizes tech innovations in the public sector is incredibly important. The next generation of public sector leaders will need to be more tech-conscious to move governments forward.