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December 21, 2011

Two more steps toward Open Governments

Two pieces of good news on the open government front.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a law requiring it to make information available in machine-readable formats, e.g. XML.

And Piedmont has become the first region of Italy to pass an open government law. This is from the Google translation of an Italian article:

Piedmont is the first Italian region to adopt a law on publication and reuse data of the public administration, the so-called “Open Data”. The text was unanimously approved of the voters in the session of December 20.

With this definition refers to a philosophy that is both a practice. It implies that some types of data are freely accessible to all, without copyright restrictions, patents or other forms of control to limit their reproduction.
“The law gives effect to the principle that data produced by public institutions belong to the community and, therefore, must be made available through the internet and reusable formats defined. This will increase the transparency of public bodies and the participation and collaboration between public and private sectors, “explained the speakers of the bill Roberto Placido (Pd) and Roberto De Magistris (Northern League).

The text consists of six articles. The regional government will be obliged to ensure the availability, management, access, transmission, storage and availability of data in digital mode. This is a significant contribution to the modernization and innovation, by transposing the provisions of the Digital Administration Code, provides citizens with an additional instrument of control and economic system to a new development opportunities.

The Piedmont Region in May 2010 had already achieved its regional portal of open data dati.piemonte.it. The site is currently the most successful national experience and structured on the theme of open data.
The law approved helps to keep the Piedmont in Italy at the forefront of open data and is a further reference point for other Italian public administrations, which have already appreciated and taken as an example portal, now flanked by the national portal www.dati.gov.it.

The bill is placed in a context of redefining and updating of the European directives contained in the policy document “Digital Agenda for Europe”.

The law is also particularly important at this time because it can provide many business opportunities to young professionals and innovative companies in a period of severe economic crisis.

(Via Juan Carlos de Martin, whose Nexa Center was involved in inspiring and drafting the law.)

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December 16, 2010

[2b2k] ExpertNet for OpenGov

From the ExpertNet site:

The United States General Services Administration (GSA) and the White House Open Government Initiative are soliciting your feedback on a concept for next generation citizen consultation, namely a government-wide software tool and process to elicit expert public participation (working title “ExpertNet”). ExpertNet could:

Enable government officials to circulate notice of opportunities to participate in public consultations to members of the public with expertise on a topic.

Provide those volunteer experts with a mechanism to provide useful, relevant, and manageable feedback back to government officials.
The proposed concept is intended to be complementary to two of the ways the Federal government currently obtains expertise to inform decision-making, namely by convening Federal Advisory Committees and announcing public comment opportunities in the Federal Register.

Take a look at the example in the editable part of the wiki. (And, yes, I did say that parts of the wiki are editable. Thank you for trusting us, my government!)

The only thing I object to in this brilliant idea is that it comes too late for inclusion as an example in my book. Why, those dirty government dogs!

(via Craig Newmark)

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June 10, 2010

Data.gov goes semantic

Data.gov has announced that it’s making some data sets available as RDF triples so Semantic Webbers can start playing with it. There’s an index of data here. The site says that even though only a relative handful of datasets have been RDF’ed, there are 6.4 billion triples available. They’ve got some examples of RDF-enabled visualizations here and here, and some more as well.

Data.gov also says they’re working with RPI to come up with a proposal for “a new encoding of datasets converted from CSV (and other formats) to RDF” to be presented for worldwide consideration: “We’re looking forward to a design discussion to determine the best scheme for persistent and dereferenceable government URI naming with the international community and the World Wide Web Consortium to promote international standards for persistent government data (and metadata) on the World Wide Web.” This is very cool. A Uniform Resource Identifier points to a resource; it is dereferenceable if there is some protocol for getting information about that resource. So, Data.gov and RPI are putting together a proposal for how government data can be given stable Web addresses that will predictably yield useful information about that data.

I think.

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April 29, 2010

[berkman] [2b2k] Beth Noveck on White House open government initiatives

Beth Noveck is deputy chief technology officer for open government and leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. She is giving a talk at Harvard. She begins by pointing to the citizenry’s lack of faith in government. Without participation, citizens become increasingly alienated, she says. For example: the rise of Tea Parties. A new study says that a civic spirit reduces crime. Another article, in Social Science and Medicine, correlates civic structures and health. She wants to create more opportunities for citizens to engage and for government to engage in civic structures — a “DoSomething.gov,” as she lightly calls it. [NOTE: Liveblogging. Getting things wrong. Missing things. Substituting inelegant partial phrases for Beth's well-formed complete sentences. This is not a reliable report.]

Beth points to the peer to patent project she initiated before she joined the government. It enlists volunteer scientists and engineers to research patent applications, to help a system that is seriously backlogged, and that uses examiners who are not necessarily expert in the areas they’re examining. This crowd-sources patent applications. The Patent Office is studying how to adopt peer to patent. Beth wants to see more of this, to connect scientists and others to the people who make policy decisions. How do we adapt peer to patent more broadly, she asks. How do we do this in a culture that prizes consistency of procedures?

This is not about increasing direct democracy or deliberative democracy, she says. The admin hasn’t used more polls, etc., because the admin is trying to focus on action, not talk. The aim is to figuring out ways to increase collaborative work. Next week there’s a White House on conf on gov’t innovation, focusing on open grant making and prize-based innovation.

The President’s first executive action was to issue a memorandum on transparency and open gov’t. This was very important, Beth says, because it let the open gov folks in the administration say, “The President says…” President Obama is very committed to this agenda, she says; after all, he is a community organizer in his roots. Simple things like setting up a blog with comments were big steps. It’s about changing the culture. Now, there’s a culture of “leaning forward,” i.e., making commitments to being innovative about how they work. In Dec., every agency was told to come up with its own open govt plan. A directive set a road map: How and when you’re going to inventory all the data in your agency and put it online in raw, machine-readable form? How are you going to engage people in meaningful policy work? How are you going to engage in collaboration within govt and with citizens? On Tuesday, the White House collected self-evaluations, which are then evaluated by Beth’s office and by citizen groups.

How to get there. First, through people. Every agency has someone responsible for open govt. The DoT has 200+ on their open govt committee. Second, through platforms (which, as she says, is Tim O’Reilly’s mantra). E.g., data.gov is a platform.

Transparency is going well, she thinks: White House visitor logs, streaming the health care summit, publishing White House employee salaries. More important is data.gov. 64M hits in under a year. Pew says 40% of respondents have been there. 89M hits on the IT dashboard that puts a user-friendlier interface to govt spending. Agencies are required to put up “high value” data that helps them achieve their core mission. E.g., Dept. of Labor has released 15 yrs of data about workplace exposure to toxic chemicals, advancing its goal of saving workers’ lives. Medicare data helps us understand health care. USDA nutrition data + a campaign to create video games to change the eating habits of the young. Agencies are supposed to ask the public which data they want to see first, in part as a way of spurring participation.

To spur participation, the GSA now has been procuring govt-friendly terms of service for social media platforms; they’re available at apps.gov. It’s now trying to acquire innovation prize platforms, etc.

Participation and collaboration are different things, she says. Participation is a known term that has to do with citizens talking with govt. But the exciting new frontier, she says, is about putting problems out to the public for collaborative solving. E.g., Veterans Benefits Admin asked its 19,000 employees how to shorten wait times; within the first week of a brainstorming competition, 7,000 employees signed up and generated 3,000 ideas, the top ten of which are being implemented. E.g., the Army wikified the Army operations manual.

It’s also about connecting the public and private. E.g., the National Archives is making the Federal Registry available for free (instead of for $17K/yr), and the Princeton Internet center has made an annotatable. Carl Malamud also. The private sector has announced National Lab Day, to get scientists out into the schools. Two million people signed up.

She says they know they have a lot to do. E.g., agencies are sitting on exebytes of info, some of which is on paper. Expert networking: We have got to learn how to improve upon the model of federal advisory commissions, the same group of 20 people. It’s not as effective as a peer to patent model, volunteers pooled from millions of people. And we don’t have much experience using collaboration tools in govt. There is a recognition spreading throughout the govt that we are not the only experts, that there are networks of experts across the country and outside of govt. But ultimately, she says, this is about restoring trust in govt.

Q: Any strategies for developing tools for collaborative development of policy?
A: Brainstorming techniques have been taken up quickly. Thirty agencies are involved in thinking about this. It’s not about the tools, but thinking about the practices. On the other hand, we used this tool with the public to develop open govt plans, but it wasn’t promoted enough; it’s not the tools but the processes. Beth’s office acts as an internal consultancy, but people are learning from one another. This started with the President making a statement, modeling it in the White House, making the tools available…It’s a process of creating a culture and then the vehicles for sharing.

Q: Who winnowed the Veterans agency’s 3,000 suggestions?
A: The VA ideas were generated in local offices and got passed up. In more open processes, they require registration. They’ve used public thumbs up and down, with a flag for “off topic” that would shrink the posting just to one link; the White House lawyers decided that that was acceptable so long as the public was doing the rating. So the UFO and “birther” comments got rated down. They used a wiki tool (MixedInk) so the public could write policy drafts; that wiki let users vote on changes. When there are projects with millions of responses, it will be very hard; it makes more sense to proliferate opportunities for smaller levels of participation.

A: We’re crowd-sourcing expertise. In peer to patent, we’re not asking people if they like the patent or think it should be patented; we’re asking if they have info that is relevant. We are looking for factual info, recognizing that even that info is value-laden. We’re not asking about what people feel, at least initially. It’s not about fostering contentious debate, but about informed conversation.

A: What do you learn from countries that are ahead of the curve on e-democ, e.g., Estonia? Estonia learned 8 yrs ago that you have to ask people to register in online conversations…
A: Great point. We’re now getting up from our desks for the first time. We’re meeting with the Dutch, Norway, Estonia, etc. And a lot of what we do is based on Al Gore’s reinventing govt work. There’s a movement spreading particularly on transparency and data.gov.

Q: Is transparency always a good approach? Are there fields where you want to keep the public out so you can talk without being criticized?
A: Yes. We have to be careful of personal privacy and national security. Data sets are reviewed for both before they go up on data.gov. I’d rather err on the side of transparency and openness to get usover the hump of sharing what they should be sharing. There’s value in closed-door brainstorm so you can float dumb ideas. We’re trying to foster a culture of experimentation and fearlessness.

[I think it's incredible that we have people like Beth in the White House working on open government. Amazing.]

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October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.

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