Digital by default

APIs with opening times, mobile third instead of first, portals optimized for Internet Explorer 7—the “E” in Germany’s “E-Government” could just as well stand for “exasperating”. But online services do not need to feel like the digital counterparts to waiting-number ticket machines in the local council reception. Here are five positive examples.

With the right strategy, digital services can be created which remove barriers, reduce administration costs, support transparency and inspire participation. At the heart of successful services are the needs and wishes of users; they are the compass and the benchmark. More and more governments and administrators are opting for user-centric design and “digital by default”, building digital and innovation departments and bringing experts directly in-house. Five examples from across the world can give us hope that new technologies, if implemented and introduced properly, can help to make our interactions with government agencies better and more straightforward.

Discover BPS

Discover BPS—The Boston school search engine. In order to reduce complexity and support parents and children in looking for an appropriate school, the online tool Discover BPS was created. The application replaces a 28-page brochure that featured complicated regulations and prescriptions. The tool makes searching for and comparing schools as simple as looking at flight booking websites. All complexity is passed on to algorithms working in the background. A simple interface allows users to search by neighbourhood, courses and other preferences. Wish lists can be created and school profiles viewed and easily compared. The application is an official service of the City of Boston and every year it helps thousands of parents and children find the school they want. The service is the fruit of collaboration between Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and Code for America. is an award-winning government website. With a recent relaunch, is has firmly placed the focus on the needs of its users. All services and information can be found from a central site, and can be tailored in a uniform way. Instead of a wearisome struggle with the structure of the administrative apparatus, citizens can use the website to find quick answers to their queries. To permit this, the page was radically restructured: the complex menu structure was replaced by a single large search filed on the start page, and the search was optimized. User interface designers, software developers and product designers for the Government Digital Service did not stop at redesigning the front end, but also adapted many internal processes for the new requirements. All important services, such as ordering documents and voting papers can be managed online. is probably the most user-friendly government website in the world. The page and its functions are being developed further by the Government Digital Service Team. The goal: To make state services “digital by default”.

Contratos Abiertos CDMX

Contratos Abiertos CDMX—fighting corruption by making contract award information public. Mexico City is the first city in the world with an open data portal looking at the allocation of public contracts. The portal gives information on tenders, contracts and the status of plans. Citizens can use the platform to follow who the recipient of a contract is, how much money is paid for the project and how quickly the implementation of the project progresses. To achieve this, contracts can be inspected and information on the contractor can be called up. The information is prepared such that it is comprehensible to the layperson, and programming interfaces are provided for software developers.

The platform, initiated by the mayor, should offer more transparency in the matter of the awarding of contracts and help to fight corruption. Currently 119 contracts of over 230 million Pesos can be viewed. The transparency initiative started with contracts issued by the financial authorities; two other major agencies should follow in the coming months. The platform will be implemented in collaboration with Bloomberg Associates and the international organization Open Contracting Partnership.


MyUSCIS—user-centred and process-oriented. Alongside weather information and tax and financial services, services involving immigration and visa applications are the most-used online services of the US administration. 3.6 million people visit the immigration authority’s page every week. In order to make the often complex and taxing process as simple as possible for users, the immigration authority has called in the assistance of two digital service organizations from the government: the US Government Digital Service and 18F. The teams have interviewed numerous users and helped the authorities approach the services from the perspective not of processes and forms, but of individual user scenarios. This created MyUSCIS, a service which provides all the information and resources connected to applications and procedures relating to immigration. Forms are provided in simple language and can be filled in and submitted online. Moreover, users can check and monitor their status. Using an alert system, future users should be able to receive notices regarding deadlines and the next step in their applications.

Cape Town Budget Project

Cape Town Budget Project—understanding the city using data. Visualising financial data is, in some ways, as old as the idea of open data itself. It comes in all shapes and colours. Displaying figures in brightly-coloured circles or squares, however, does not necessarily make them any easier to understand, or more accessible. The Cape Town Budget Project devoted some thought to this issue and developed a form of visual storytelling, to help citizens put figures into context and understand them better. The city itself provides the data for this in a form of open data. The application was implemented by an interdisciplinary team of journalists and software developers from different non-profit organizations. The code is open source and the hope is that other cities will make use of it.

“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!

Julia Kloiber

Julia Kloiber

Julia Kloiber works as a project leader for the Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland and is active in the association Digitale Gesellschaft (Digital Society). She works on projects dealing with issues of free knowledge and open data. Currently she is working on the Code for Germany, a German-wide community that develops digital tools and applications from open data.
Julia Kloiber

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