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September 18, 2009

Interview about e-gov ‘n’ stuff

Ulrike Reinhard has posted a video interview she did with me yesterday in preparation for the Reboot_D – Digital Democracy conference in Germany. We talk about e-gov, transparency, and whether the Web is a “third place.”

And, while I’m on the topic of videos, here’s a somewhat more lively one:

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September 9, 2009

Making the most of government data

The Sunlight Foundation has picked two winning mashups in its contest:

Washington, DC – The Sunlight Foundation awarded with the grand prize of $10,000 for Sunlight’s Apps for America 2: The Challenge. is a Web application designed by Forum One Communications that lets anyone–no programming background required–choose different government data sets and mash them up to create visualizations and compare results on a state by state basis. Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, announced the winners and distributed over $25,000 in awards late yesterday at the Gov 2.0 Expo hosted by O’Reilly Media and TechWeb.

Sunlight created the Apps for America 2: The Challenge to solicit creative Web applications based on the information available at, the new central depository for government data created by Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. It was inspired by the Sunlight’s commitment to use new tools to make the work of the federal government more transparent

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September 6, 2009

Evolution of Evolution

Ben Fry posts an amazing visualization of the changes in the six editions of Darwin’s Origin of Species, based on meticulous work done by Dr. John van Wyhe and others. From Ben’s introductory text:

The second edition, for instance, adds a notable “by the Creator” to the closing paragraph, giving greater attribution to a higher power. In another example, the phrase “survival of the fittest” — usually considered central to the theory and often attributed to Darwin — instead came from British philosopher Herbert Spencer, and didn’t appear until the fifth edition of the text.

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July 22, 2009

My PDF talk on facts ‘n’ transparency

Link. (The video embeds my slides, but (1) they get more and more out of order in this YouTube; they were in the right order when I actually presented them. 2. My font got lost somewhere in the translations, and so there’s a fair bit of mis-sizing, text overflows, etc.) (I posted about one of the ideas in the talk (transparency as the new objectivity) here.)

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July 19, 2009

Transparency is the new objectivity

A friend asked me to post an explanation of what I meant when I said at PDF09 that “transparency is the new objectivity.” First, I apologize for the cliché of “x is the new y.” Second, what I meant is that transparency is now fulfilling some of objectivity’s old role in the ecology of knowledge.

Outside of the realm of science, objectivity is discredited these days as anything but an aspiration, and even that aspiration is looking pretty sketchy. The problem with objectivity is that it tries to show what the world looks like from no particular point of view, which is like wondering what something looks like in the dark. Nevertheless, objectivity — even as an unattainable goal — served an important role in how we came to trust information, and in the economics of newspapers in the modern age.

You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity. What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

This change is, well, epochal.

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.

We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works. Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.

In the Age of Links, we still use credentials and rely on authorities. Those are indispensible ways of scaling knowledge, that is, letting us know more than any one of us could authenticate on our own. But, increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge — in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value — we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency — the embedded ability to see through the published draft — often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.

In fact, transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.

Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can. [Tags: ]


July 12, 2009

Transparent justice

The Sunlight Foundation’s Daniel Schuman writes about the transparency of the Sotomayor hearings and about the extent to which the future member of the Supreme Court would support greater transparency in the courts.

There’s also a Twitter stream for news about the hearings. It’s under the name Sonia Sotomayor, but I doubt that she’s actually there twiddling her thumbs….

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June 30, 2009

[pdf09] Sunlight Foundation announcement

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Ellen Miller, founder of The Sunlight Foundation, says that after this morning’s sessions at PDF (Vivek Kundra’s announcement, Beth Noveck) “We feel pretty good.”

Sunlight Labs has a staff of 14 and a community of about a thousand. Clay Johnson talks the problem that the government data isn’t always in computable form. Now there’s, a task queuing service for people who want to help. It’s beginning with three tasks: Earmark reading task, photo uploading task, and find the twitter accounts of your local reps task. E.g., the earmarks are in PDF files which are not easily computer-processible. E.g., “Wal-Mart” may be expressed as “walmart,” Wal Mart,” etc. You get points for doing tasks to level up. Highest level: Transparency Overlord.

TransparencyCorps is open source so you can run your own on your own site. “We ask you not to call it TransparencyCorps because that would be a jerk thing to do.” :)

David Moore with announces a complete redesign. “We’re building a social network of actions around Congress.” “Users tracking this bill are also tracking…”

Q: [tim carr of FreePress] Can orgs like mine plug into these?
A: Yes. At OpenCongress, you can use the social info, and you can get at the data via API.

Q: How about for state govt’s?
Clay: We’re working on it. 18-24 months, maybe.

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[pdf09] Vivek Kundra and Macon Phillips … now with extra Craig!

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. POSTED WITHOUT BEING REREAD. You are warned, people.

Craig Newmark: “It’s bigger than us and it feels pretty good.” Craig says he likes calling if grassroots democracy. Policy wonks, nerds, and pragmatists working together. Craig says we should be talking about “nonks” (= nerds + wonks). He salutes the first “nerd administration.”

Craig introduces Vivek Kundra (chief information officer) and Macon Phillips (White House new media director). Vivek makes an announcement. “The federal gov’t spends $70B on info tech” but the initiatives freqwuently fail. E.g., the Census’ ridiculous handheld that has failed, so now we’re back to using paper. [ACK!] Vivek announces the IT Dashboard It builds on It shows provides real-time visibility into your tax dollars. You can share the data, embed it, drill down into it, show you the phto fo the CIO responsible, contact her or him directly, provide feedback, look at the perfomance metrics viewed against theactual performance, who the contractors are. You can get the data itself in mashable form, and you can provide any set of data you pull together as an RSS feed.

He shows tools for comparing and spotting trends; it’s a little like WolframAlpha for gov’t data. “We’re launching a platform that will allow us to tap into some of the best ideas and best thinking.” “We look forward to iterating on this. We’ve launched it in beta.”

[This is the type of big, visible success the CIO needs. Fantastic. He gets, and deserves, a standing ovation.]

Macon Phillips begins by thanking the audience for its work. He asks for more feedback on the White House’s Web 2.0 projects.

Q: [esther dyson] How are you going to aggregate the feedback?
VK: It goes to the relevant CIOs and to me. Macon and I are looking at how we can use media to amplify it and getting it directly to the people making decisions.

Q: IS there a danger in hiring tech people to make tech policy?
VK: The fed gov’t is made up of 4M people and 10,000 systems. It’s great to have access to some of the brightest minds in tech policy. Those who are coming to serve in the interest of their country is extremely people. The percentage of people from the tech industry is a small percentage.
MO: We’re bringing in people who can help us with processes, help us make gov’t more transparent.

Q: 18K computer educators are meeting now, discussing how to teach students to do data mashups, etc. Are you trying to figure out a way to allow educators and students to work with your data?
VK: Yes, students can now solve actual problems. But it’s not just teachers and students. Think about the explosion of research when the genome was made public. Also, when GIS data was made public. We’re building platformsWe’re looking at X-prizes to stimulate innovation.

Q: Tying in Stimulus and bailout funds?
VK: Yes. GAO data is already showing up. It took us 1.5 months to get to 100,000 feeds. We decided to launch with just a few so we could get feedback on what we’re doing.

Q: Is the new office of cybersecurity going to be exempt from transparency?
VK: No. They need internal data sharing, and I’m working with them on transparency.

VK: You want into in open formats, in as raw a form as possible. In its raw format, peole have the ability to slice and dice, and to innovate.

Q: What are the limits of transparency?
VK: We don’t want to harm national security. And we want gov’t officials to feel secure in their internal discussions.

Q: [andrew rasiej] Redefining “public” accesibility of documents as “searchable and accessible online”?
VK: As a principle, that makes a lot of sense. I want to caution on the reality, though. There are over 10,000 systems. The data lives in COBOL-based systems we have to get people out of retirement to help us. Petabytes of data. So, there’s an economic question in making those investments in going back through. So, looking forward we want to make sure the spirit of that definition of “public” is honored… [Tags: ]

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June 11, 2009

[newmedia] Engagement and transparency in government

Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation and David Almacy (Edelman’s public affairs VP and former Director of Internet Operations, White House) are talking about government and engagement.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Clay says he’s a product guy who likes building things. Coming out of the Dean campaign, he co-founded Blue State Digital. When asked why Obama was successful online, he says he replies “Because Howard Dean had bad lawyers.” He could just build stuff there without consulting lawyers. Now, when they try to apply this stuff to governing, the lawyers are involved, and creativity is coming to a screeching halt, Clay says. But, he says, there’s another way: Publishing data. aggregates data from the executive branch. Lots of businesses have been built using gov’t data, and this will be a seed bed.

Clay says that Twitter is as important to a political campaign as email. “I’m willing to go on record that in 2012 Twitter will be a bigger fund-raiser for campaigns than email.” Obama raised 80% of his funds through email. E.g., Tim O’Reilly has 200,000 subscribers.

He talks about Apps for America, a contest for apps that do useful things with open data. The new round has people working with the data at

Q: [me] How can we encourage the gov’t and others to produce data in open formats?
Clay: I’m more focused on just getting the data out. I don’t care about the format. We should tell them just to do it in plain text, if that’ll get it out faster. Once the gov’t starts pumping it out we can have the debate about which standards.

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May 5, 2009

[berkman] Elizabeth Losh on Obama’s use of social media

Elizabeth Losh of UC Irvine is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “From the Crowd to the Cloud: Social Media and the Obama Administration.” She looks at “institutions as digital content creators.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by pointing to a Congressional hearing in which someone unknowingly referred to some footage from Battlefield 2, in which you can play on either side, as proof that Jihadists are recruiting on the Net.

In the 2008 election, McCain had a series of rhetorical disasters when using social media, Liz says. McCainSpace, she says, was “an unmitigated disaster.” She also points to the mashups done with greenscreen videos of McCain. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, used social media well. It used low bandwidth interactivity effectively (e.g., online tax calculator). And third parties injected memes.

So, how much change has happened now that Obama is president?

It’s not all that difference. She compares, an abstinence site put up by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has kept it pretty much the same, except that some of the conversation starters have been slightly modified. has moved from featuring mountain lions as the guardians of children (an odd choice, says Liz) to Muppets. The Bush admin did some health initiatives using SecondLife, she points out.

How much privacy? uses and has responded to concerns about the privacy implications. When you leave a .gov domain, it signals that you are leaving a protected area. Liz wonders about the efficacy of using disclaimer language, however. At, if you decided to apply for a job, you start getting a lot of emails from the transition team.

The State Dept. Blog, “unfortunately named DipNote,” has been expanded. They twitter now. On Twitter, they’ve responded to citizen questions. E.g., Rebecca MacKinnon pointed out that a Chinese citizen had been arrested. The State Dept. tweeted that they were looking into it, although that tweet was deleted from Twitter shortly afterward. Rebecca also noticed that State Dept. photos posted on Flickr were marked as copyrighted; State now gives them Creative Commons licenses. Liz points to the CC notice and the DMCA takedown notice on the same page at and says that there we see the manifestation of the conflict between acknowledging the culture of sharing and the support of existing rules.

She worries about the “googlization of government,” i.e., commercial entities hosting info that is part of the public record. E.g., gov’t sites that use Google Maps.

At, you are encouraged to “share your story.” But what happens to those comments? How are they archived? Which ones will be displayed. They say in six months they’ll start posting that material, but it’s not clear how.

Q: [me] has started posting at Facebook where people can comment…
A: And this is a disaster for archiving.
Q: What would you do with comments at blog?
A: I’d like to see moderated comments. I do understand that there are limited government resources. Creating digital versions of Congressional records would maybe be a better way to spend the money.

Q: By going onto Facebook, the Admin is reaching out into civic society. That conversation would have been in coffee shops and not part of the public level. So maybe this shouldn’t be archived. How do we draw the lines as the lines between public and private are being blurred?
A: It’s a complicated thing. Suppose there are responses from officials to comments on FB? These are always difficult issues. [Paraphrasing!]

Q: Does government data include the back and forth between citizens? If we say it’s part of the public record, the gov’t won’t be able to participate, or build helpful stuff, as quickly. Would we want an archived federal Twitter that was crappy but kept a permanent record? Should the gov bring more of these social tools in house, or use existing, commercial sites and give up on including everything in the permanent record?
A: I tend toward wanting more stuff in public and archived. Let’s think about harvesting some of the discourse going on in the crowd.

Q: It seems like they’re doing lots of experimentation without the backbone of a full, stable archive behind it. Is this experimentation is leading us into an unknown state…?
A: The Archive is archiving some material on third party sites. The blog is impersonal and press-release-y, while the TSA blog (started under Bush) is folksy. So, some of these experiments have histories.

A: I’d give low marks for transparency because the PDFs are packed with charts that are not reusable.

Q: Social media is relatively new but and people express things that they don’t want known 5 years later…
A: A student applying for a job as a police officer found that they looked at his FB page and the pages of his friends. In the old days, they would have called his friends and asked questions.
Q: We’ve shifted the line between public and private life. Are we going to be able tor retract things from the public record?
A: That will be an issue.

Q: Any examples of the next frontier or participation, namely direct democracy
A: They still count emails. It’s quantitative, not qualitative. I worry about pseudo-interactivity, such as town hall meetings and the use of the Internet for political spectacle. That’s why I worry about these “share your stories” sites.

Q: During the Malagasi coup, people in Madagascar started talking about the deposed president finding sanctuary in the US Embassy, using Twitter. That could have flash-mobbed the embassy. Within 7 mins, the US embassy had responding, tweeting that the rumor was false. Can we give Obama a little bit of a break? All of us engaged in social media will screw up dozens of times …
A: That’s why we shouldn’t be cheerleaders. “I’m impressed by many of the social media efforts, but I think this form of criticism is important to do.”
Q: How do we encourage people to experiment in these spaces? As people go into these tools, they’re inept at first. At what point does the criticism discourage government officials from experimenting?
A: Many of my criticisms are that they’re not doing enough. Not enough commenting, with data representation, experimenting with new forms of participation.

Q: How much of out-of-the-box thinking are they doing with social media?
A: Theyre usually using them the way people already do. I wish they’d be more experimental.

Q: A crowd consists of the people who are uninformed. Government is about managing uncertainty. But if the info you get is biased and uninformed, you can’t manage. What’s the role of the crowd?
A: I don’t take as dark a view of the crowd. You can create political spectacles where a crowd is just a display, but you can get more participatory forms. There can be smart mobs. There are ways they can participate that are meaningful. The Obama admin is trying to take advantage of social occasions that are oriented around civic identity, not persuasion. “As a rhetorician, this is an interesting administration to watch.”

Q: Are Republicans inherently bad at social media?
A: Not at all. Sam Brownback had a great Web site. It does not divide easily along partisan lines.
Q: It depends in part on the demographics of the party. Libertarians have an incredible presence on line.
Q: Markos Moulitas says that Republican’s political philosophy leads them to be uncomfortable with bottom-up media…
A: Republicans do seem to like talk radio, where only a few get to participate.

Q: There was a time when there were a small number of leftwing political blogs and they bemoaned the fact that they had so little Web presence compared to conservative and libertarian blogs, around 2002-3. The populist element is present in all parties and drives a lot of social media. Some believe that the Dean campaign derailed because it thought the comments on its blog were representative of the world…
A: The postmortems are still being done.

Q: I’m not sure how I feel about the gov’t investing enough in social media to do it well. Experimentation is great, but totally botching it at the federal level isn’t good for anyone…
A: Good search on gov’t websites should be a top priority. To get all of Bush’s signing statements, you’d have to know to search on “shall construe.”

Q: Don’t you need a proprietary company to provide those services?
A: We need to be asking questions. [Tags: ]

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