An interview in Japan with Code4Japan
In July 2019, the inno³ team travelled to Japan to meet local players from the digital, open source, open data, etc. sectors and to exchange on their open innovation practices and projects. Indeed, the Japanese scene fascinates many Westerners for its evolving and innovative digital and technological market, for its singularity and its ancestral approach. One could then characterize the Japanese island of stimulating curiosity.
But what do we really know about the archipelago, its actors and their projects, particularly in terms of open innovation? Too many projects are still unknown in France, although there are certainly many opportunities for sharing and learning. In other words, what can we learn from them and what can we bring to them in order to contribute together to the evolution of the market ?
During its trip to Japan, the inno³ team met with Hal Seki, representative of Code4Japan, a non-profit organization that aims to promote the Civic-Tech culture in Japan. He has worked for mobile phone companies as a Geo developer since 2002 and is currently CEO of Georepublic Japan. Hal Seki is also the founder and CEO of HackCamp Inc, a company that helps companies innovate by organizing Hackathons, Ideathons and other workshops. Moreover, our interviewee is qualified as a Ushahidi Certified Developer since he was the CEO of Sinsai, a cloud sourcing crisis information gathering platform using Ushah.
Discover in this article his story and the main work of the association Code4Japan.
How did Code4Japan get its start ?
Before starting Code for Japan, I had been working as a voluntary member of the crisis mapping team to collect information about the big earthquake and tsunami that occurred in May 2011 in Japan. Since then, I have had a lot of discussion with people from local communities and local governments, and I noticed some potential areas for connecting people using technologies. As an open-source community person, I would rather contribute using prototyping technique, social networking tools, open data, or running workshops.
After watching a TED talk by Jennifer Pahlka, I decided to start a new civic tech organization in 2013 : Code for Japan, an independent, self-funded not-for-profit organization. We mostly earn profit from governments by running consulting services, and spend the benefits on community-building activities.
Following the tagline of the organization : ‘Think together, Create together’, we facilitate the local civic tech communities. Currently, there are over 80 local ‘Code for’ communities in Japan.
These organizations are independently working with their own motivations, the civic tech community is the grass-roots network. Nobody can control it. We are just connecting people by supporting small grants or organizing regional/national conferences and meetups.
Also, Code for Japan is supporting national/local governments by giving some consulting services and most of these projects are operated by the organization itself. Code for Japan is a small team, we have three full-time employees, but we build an ad-hoc team with community members depending on the project requirements.
What are Code 4 Japan’s main activities ?
Here is a list of the main projects that we are currently running :
- Data Academy: A series of workshops on data utilization for local government officials.
- Fellowship: We find tech people and introduce them to local governments as temporary government officials. We often support team buildings.
- Local field labs: We collect issues from local governments and find private companies that want to solve these problems with them. We support people who want to solve social issues by their own means by connecting people.
- Social Technology Officer: We provide networking opportunities by organizing lectures for NPOs and tech employees, in the hope that tech employees get hired as Social Technology Officers. Social Technology Officers, or STO, are similar to Chief Technical Officers, but they will not only lead technologies but also create new value in the social sectors.
- Social Hack Day: This is a bi-monthly mini hackathon. We gather people to hack something they are focusing on. Some teams make short presentations, and if someone is interested in it, he/she will be able to work on the project with the team.
Could you describe some national / international collaborations ?
Code for Japan is one of the organizations on the board of Code for All (CFA) network. We communicate with each other in the global Code for All channel discussion.
Moreover, the international association has some budget for facilitating global collaboration, such as network exchange funding. Through the funding, Code for Japan has had several workshops about collaborative policymaking with the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS) from Taiwan.
Are open models well accepted in the Japanese Civic-tech ?
In Japan, the government has been promoting Open Data to government organizations, and 70% actually provide open data. However, there are not many useful data so far. Some of the most advanced government organizations provide valuable data, but the majority generally provide only typical data, like public toilets. We need concrete and successful cases of open data utilization if we want to further promote the concept. The Code for community has built many useful applications such as : garbage collection app, preschool finder, election, and more.
Today, public transportation data is one of the hot topics in Japan, especially in Tokyo. Some local communities have for example collected data to improve bus services, Google transit and other service providers.
Unfortunately, the benefits of Open Source for the governments are not well understood in Japan, even though I sometimes mention it in government committees.
What are the next steps for Code4Japan ?
Our work on Data Academy is one of the essential activity for us in terms of solving internal issues and improving our help to governments. We are currently expanding this program with other partners, such as local Code for members.
Also, we are going to create an extensive network with NPOs and social entrepreneurs. They have solutions to social issues that we could all benefit from.
I also want to create test fields with local governments, connect social entrepreneurs and NPOs, private sectors, etc. These additional activities will accelerate the expansion of GovTech in Japan.
How do you see the future of open models in Japan ?
Based on our aging society and low birth rate, the tax income will be decreasing, and, on the other hand, social welfare cost will be increasing. Keeping the quality of public services will become very difficult in the future, and many local governments will merge.
The Japanese government says they will achieve the realization of Society 5.0, but established industries in Japan are too old to catch up to the digital era. As a matter of fact, the digital transformation of governments and big enterprises are the key to success.
For this reason, Code for Japan is assisting the government in developing a digital government and standardization policy.
I want to learn advanced cases of smart cities and how to create the data standard. For the future, I also want to work with the private sectors in the right way and work on one of the many questions I have : is FIWARE useful to keep interoperability between smart cities ?