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Describing Government 2.0: Alex Howard on Jargon and Communication

Just came across an interesting post by Alex Howard (@digiphile) in which he looks at various definitions and ways of describing Government 2.0. He thinks (and I agree with him) that it’s important to be mindful of your audience.  Jargon isn’t helpful in communicating the ideas behind government 2.0 to those who are not already part of the “goverati.”

Instead of dwelling any further on what Government 2.0 might be or couching discussion or branding in jargon, explain what the technology or platform will do — and what problem it will solve. And at the end of the day, remember that on language, usage drives meaning.

The whole post is worth checking out.  Like Tim O’reilly’s chapter, Government as Platform, there are some good descriptions of both Web 2.0 and Government 2.0. Here are a few snips:

The line I find most compelling in the above explanation for the term is the “attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses.” If I had to explain the idea to my technophobic friends, that’s the tack I’d take.
……….
For those more technically inclined, it might be useful to talk about open data, mashups, Data.gov, the Open Government directive, XML, XBRL, virtualization, cloud computing, social media and a host of other terms that have meaning in context but without prior knowledge do little to inform the public about what, precisely, the “2.0″ means.

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Noveck on Collaborative Democracy

My favorite chapter in Beth Simone Noveck’s book, Wiki Government, is her second. (You should see all the underlined passages, stars, and notes in my copy!) In this chapter she critiques the “outdated theory of participatory democracy that drives the design of government institutions” and discusses the theoretical underpinnings of what she terms, “collaborative democracy.” When I bought Open Government (published by O’Reilly Media), I happily noticed I wasn’t alone in my admiration of this chapter.   The editors chose it for their book as well.

Direct Democracy
Noveck begins with a brief discussion of direct democracy, that is, citizens participating in government through voting.  She notes that despite initial excitement for e-voting when the World Wide Web first emerged, it never gained traction.  “Security and reliability problems” are perhaps the biggest barriers to it’s widespread adaption. (Noveck doesn’t touch on this, but I will. Four words: voter disenfranchisement, Florida, 2000). However, she notes a much larger issue:
[T]he notion of widespread, push-button democracy in whatever form does little to address how to instituionalize complex decisions in particular cases.  It is no wonder that the vision of participation by direct democratic voting has not taken off. (page 36)
Deliberative Democracy
Noveck devotes much more time critiquing deliberative democracy (the discussing and debating of public policy by the whole community, not just politicians).  She’s wise to do this since, as she puts it:
Deliberative democracy has been the dominent view of participation in contemporary political theory. At its center is the Habermasian notion that the reasoned exchange of discourse by diverse individuals representative of the public at large produces a more robust political culture and a healthier democracy. (page 36)

Her critique? That it’s essentially “toothless.”

[D]eliberative democracy’s proponents assume that people are generally powerless and incapable of doing more than talking with neighbors to develop opinions or criticizing government to keep it honest…. [I]n practice, civic talk is largely disconnected from power. It does not take account of the fact that in a web 2.0 world ordinary people can collaborate with one another to do extraordinary things.

The anthropology of deliberative participation leads to practices designed to present the finished work of institutional professionals, spark public opinion in response, and keep peace among neighbors engaged in civic discourse. The goal is not to improve decisionmaking for “there is no one best outcome; instead, there is a respectful communicative process.” ….Deliberative democracy relegates the role of citizens to discussion only indirectly related to decisionmaking and action. The reality of deliberation is that it is toothless.” (page 37)

I couldn’t agree more.  Discussing and debating ideas is important, but not nearly adequate.  The vast majority of people feel disheartened at the prospect of participating in government because they don’t feel heard. Their voices aren’t effecting policy and they feel like their efforts are futile and in vain.  To Noveck’s critique I would also add that there doesn’t seem to be much deliberative democracy currently happening. At least not in town hall events and city counsel meetings.  (Though I do see discussion and engagement on political blogs and Twitter.)
Deliberative Democracy vs Collaborative Democracy
By way of defining collaborative democracy, Noveck contrasts it with deliberative democracy.  Noveck takes about two pages to distinguish collaborative from deliberative democracy.  For easier digestion, I’ve listed her main points (in her own words) below:
  • Deliberative democracy suffers from a lack of imagination in that it fails to acknowledge the importance of connecting diverse skills, as well as diverse viewpoints, to public policy. Whereas diverse viewpoints might make for a more lively conversation, diverse skills are essential to collaboration.
  • Deliberation requires an agenda for orderly discussion. Collaboration requires breaking down a problem into component parts that can be parceled out and assigned to members.
  • Deliberation either debates problems on an abstract level before the implementation of the solution or discusses the solution after it has already been decided upon. Collaboration occurs throughout the decisionmaking process. It creates a multiplicty of opportunities and outlets for engagment to strengthen a culture of participation and the quality of decisionmaking in government itself.
  • Deliberation is focused on opinion formation and the general will (or sometimes on achieving consensus). Collaboration is a means to an end. Hence the emphasis is not on participation for its own sake but on inviting experts, loosely defined as those with expertise about a problem, to engage in information gathering, information evaluation and measurement, and the development of specific solutions for implementation. (page 39)

Possibilities of Collaborative Democracy

Ok, this is the stuff I love to read, think and dream about: the possibilities of collaborative democracy.  Noveck on connecting “experts” with problems:
[O]bscure (yet important decisions are made every day in government that could be made better if technology were used to open participation and oversight to a few dozen experts and enthusiasts: those that blogger Andy Oram calls the microelite: the 5 or 10 or 100 people who understand a discrete question and who are passionate about getting involved in a particular way. Collaborative democracy is about making it easier for such people to find the areas where they want to work and contribute.  (page 41)
On enabling collective action, possibly my favorite theme in the tech-enabled social change arena:
Giving ordinary people – as distinct from corporations and interest groups – the right and ability to participate enables them to form new groups better suited to address new problems.  Alone, there is not much any one person can do to bring about change or to participate meaningfully and usefully in a policymaking process. But working together a group can take meaningful action.  (page 42)
On agility:
Online groups can also change their collective goals in response to pressing problems more quickly than traditional organizations that lock in their own institutional and individual priorities. (page 42)

This quote reminded me of Tim O’Reilly’s brilliant concept, Government as Platform:

A collaborative culture does not place the burden on government or the public alone to address complex social problems. Instead, by organizing collaboration, government keeps itself at the center of decisionmaking as the neutral arbiter in the public interest and also benefits from the contributions of those outside of government.  (page 42)

The reward of collaborative democracy? Better governance, more effective problem solving, and innovation:

[C]ollaboration offers a huge potential payoff in the form of more effective government. Effective government, in turn translates into better decisionmaking and more active problem solving, which could spur growth in society and the economy. (page 43)
Tech-enabled, mass scale collaboration has the potential for us to re-imagine and re-create democracy as we currently experience it.  But as Noveck iterates throughout the book, effective collaboration takes smart and thoughtful design.  I’ll be exploring issues of design on this blog and Twitter in the days to come.

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The Power of Design: Crowdsourcing vs Collaboration

Earlier in the quarter, I blogged about my first (overwhelmingly positive) impressions of Beth Simone Noveck’s book Wiki Government.  One of the themes I wanted to return to is her discussion of crowdsourcing versus collaboration:

Collaboration is distinct from the concept of crowdsourcing. Jeff Howe, an editor at Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing [Noveck’s emphasis] to describe the burgeoning phenomenon of “taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” (He does use Peer-to-Patent as his one public sector example.)  But whereas crowdsourcing generally refers to aggregating the responses of individuals across a network, collaborative democracy aspires to the kind of intentional peer production and shared group effort of Wikipedia, in which volunteers sign up to write encyclopedia entries as a group. While crowdsourcing activities like prediction markets aggregate individual preferences, collaboration implies more robust and diverse coordination structures that enable people to divvy up tasks and roles.  Collaboration does not so much imply throwing people at a problem as coordinating the right people in different roles. Role differentiation not only helps to structure work done across a distance, it also conveys the sense of working as a team. Unlike peer production, which includes purely civic, botton-up activities, collaborative democracy emphasizes shared work by a government institution and a network of participants. Collaborative participation is the “smoke-filled aquarium” – to borrow an overheard coinage – that combines open-source volunteer participation with government’s central coordination, issue framing, and bully pulpit. [pg 18; emphasis mine]

Now, I don’t know if I agree with Noveck’s distinction. My experience is that people often think of crowdsourcing efforts as involving some form of coordination and collaboration, not just aggregation.  For instance, many view Wikipedia as a crowdsourcing success story, myself included. But I do think she brings up an important point.  What she’s really getting at is the question of design. Of the importance of designing crowdsourcing projects to facilitate cooperation.  

Kate Ray’s (@kraykray) insightful, must-read blog post, Hive Architecture, questions the unexamined, often blind, acceptance of the “wisdom of crowds.” Her point is that design (architecture, structure) matters in reaping the benefits of collective intelligence.  

If I told you that a big group of people is better at doing things than one person alone, or even a smaller group of people, you’d probably agree with me. Science benefits from collaboration, as does carrying heavy objects. Kitchen wisdom says that ‘many hands make light work.’ And then there’s Wikipedia.

But if I told you that big groups of people are terrible at doing things, you’d probably still agree with me. Large organizations are inefficient, and mob mentality causes regular people to make stupid/appalling decisions. Our kitchen sage contradicts itself with the warning that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth.’ There was the recession.

Isn’t there a contradiction here? The web is brimming with discussions about the value or deficiencies of social production and over ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ versus ‘the stupidity of the crowd,’ as if it were one or the other, but the truth is that a group is neither wise nor stupid, powerful nor impotent.

So what makes a crowd smart and successful at collaboration?  Ray:

Groups aren’t necessarily smart or powerful, but they could be. It isn’t enough to get a bunch of people together in a room or on a website with a great vision of what they could accomplish. The group’s potential hinges on its structure. [emphasis hers]

Design is a theme Noveck returns to over and over again in Wiki Government. Not surprisingly; the successful implementation of her ideas (read peer-to-patent), depend  on it!  We’re still mastering the design of websites and online spaces to help foster certain outcomes, i.e. sharing and collaboration and community.  As Ray writes, 

There’s a lot to learn. The Internet is still so young that things are exploding on top of it without us really knowing why. The slightest variation in group structure – say, introducing the one-way relationship of ‘follower’ in place of the two-way relationship of ‘friend’ – can have a huge impact on the nature of the group, and make or break a start-up. There are interesting experiments in group formation everywhere and new trends, like incorporating gaming techniques into social network platforms, are rife with implications about human motivation. Academically, all of this is fascinating, but ultimately I’m interested in learning how to build more deliberately-crafted platforms that will help us work together better.

I couldn’t agree more! I first got turned on to the power of design in a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) design class I took in the fall of 2009 (one of my first classes in grad school). Since reading Wiki Government, I’ve become even more enamored with design, user experience, and usability testing; gobbling up anything and everything I can on the subjects.  As we’ve seen with peer-to-patent and Wikipedia (and a host of other examples), understanding this piece of the equation has the potential of unlocking all sorts of wonderful, world-changing collaborations. 

Shameless plug alert: I’m looking for a design and/ or user experience internship to develop myself in this area.  If you know of any, please give me a holler!

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Toward Fuller Transparency

Unintended Consequences of One-Sided Transparency
At the beginning of my Open Government independent study, which ends on Friday (only officially, I’ll still be very engaged on this topic), I set out various learning objectives.  One in particular was, “Unintentional consequences.  What are the unintentional — and potentially negative — consequences of Open Government?”  I knew there had to be an angle, an issue —something — I hadn’t yet come across which would add some counterbalance to my rosy-eyed view of Gov 2.0 and it’s possibilities.   Enter Archon Fung and David Weil’s chapter in Open Government titled, “Open Government and Open Society.”
Fung and Weig’s basic contention is that while overall the concept of  transparency is beneficial, the one-sided focus of government wrongdoing is both problematic and misleading. Misleading because it doesn’t provide citizens with a full and, therefore, accurate picture of when government is doing good work.
“[T]he current discourse of transparency — focused as it is on accountability and issues such as corruption — produces policies and platforms that are particularly sensitive to government’s mistakes but often are blind to its accomplishments. Transparency in this sense is like a school report card that only reports when a student is sent to detention, plays hooky from class, or fails courses, but does not register when she ears As in her course. “

Fung and Weig seem to imply that the progressive transparency movement may, counterintutively, move views about government further to the Right.  They argue that transparency initiatives which exclusively expose government fraud, inefficiencies, scandals, and corruptions will simply reinforce conservatives’ anti-government sentiments. It’s reasonable to extrapolate then that moderates and others could become more distrustful of government.

Fuller Transparency

Their solution? More transparency, not less:

“The solution to this problem is not to reduce government transparency, but rather to create a fuller accounting of it.  Instead of focusing solely on disclosure systems that produce accountability, we should press for disclosure systems that allow citizens to identify and express their evaluation of government activities as they would private products and services. One promising set of examples of this is public accounting systems developed by a number of local governments that provide a platform for citizens, civic groups, and other organizations to provide ongoing  feedback on the service provision of specific government agencies or key providers such as the police.”

Fung and Weig’s argument is interesting to consider, but I didn’t completely buy it.  People are already pretty doggone distrustful of government; convinced that our political system is broken and corrupt. It’s hard to be shocked anymore by the greed, deceit and incompetence of government and politicians reported daily or weekly. I also don’t think that further Bad Government news will necessarily cause someone to become more conservative.  Perhaps it will. But in general, people of every political persuasion tend to read and interpret information so that it fits into their particular world view.  I do, however, like and support the idea of a fuller picture of government. Of an A-F report card of government, if you will, rather than just an “F” report card.

Along these lines, recently discussed Jen Palhka‘s idea that “open data holds ‘citizens accountable to a definition of citizenship.'”  The bulk of his blog post highlights a thought-provoking quote from Palhka, founder and executive director of Code for America:

Let’s say you’re in a city and you see a broken streetlight and you want to report that … Nowhere yet do you report that and then see where your request sits in the queue of other streetlights potholes graffiti etc. that need to be fixed. What if, when you went online, you saw the full transparency: You saw your request go into the queue of everything that needed to be fixed what and saw the algorithm that actually prioritized that … and you saw, suddenly, that the streetlight that you want to have fixed is part of a huge number of things that your city needs to deal with, and there’s a limited number of resources, and you saw that they’re fixing 10 streetlights a day and they’re not going to get to yours for another couple of weeks? And maybe you also saw in that system that the streetlight that is broken five blocks away has also been the site of 20 muggings? You might then say, ‘I’d actually prefer to have that streetlight fixed first because there is crime happening there.’ And at that moment, I think, you have the citizenship thing which says, ‘I have a need, but others have needs too, there’s limited resources, I need to be a part of solving the problem of limited resources and the greater need and not antagonistic with the government saying you didn’t fix MY streetlight because I am part of a society.'”

Open Government vs Open Society: A False Dichotomy

By far, my biggest issue with Fung and Weil’s chapter was their treatment of open government as somehow taking away from the work that needs to be done in the private sector around transparency.  A “major pitfall,” according to the authors, “is that all this energy devoted to making open government comes at the expense of leaving the operations of large private organizations – banks, manufacturers, health providers, food producers, drug companies, and the like — opaque and secret [their emphasis].” Excuse me? Since when did focusing on one aspect of societal corruption mean that all others would be abandoned? To make a sizable dent in an area, it’s important to focus on it and dig deep. Open government activists won’t be as effective if their efforts are spread thin. A robust, strong movement is needed, but that doesn’t mean that strong movements can’t also form around other sectors.  And while I’m not as aware of watchdog groups in the private sector, from what I’ve read, there seems to be at least some oversite.  You can see public interest in corporate transparency with the success of documentaries like Super Size Me (food industry) and Sicko (health care), and with groups like Walmart Watch (retail). Furthermore, working on government transparency will have a huge effect on corporate transparency.  Think campaign finance reform.  Government and corporate transparency are inextricably linked to one another!

This quote by Fung and Weil drives me a little batty: “should transparency enthusiasts invest their energies in open government or in creating an open society in which organizations of all sorts – in particular, private corporations – are much more transparent [their emphasis]?” Um… what? This either/or question is a false dichotomy… and pretty ridiculous. By working on open government, activists are working toward an open society.  It’s not as if open gov folks are choosing one over the other.  C’mon.   And as I noted above, working on government transparency will effect corporate transparency.  If our politicians weren’t as tied to Big Business, corporations would inevitably be held more accountable, no?

I’m all for an open society; that’s why I’m an open government proponent and enthusiast.  Framing this as an open government versus “open society” argument doesn’t make any sense.  It’s plain silly.

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A Lightbulb Turns on: Government as Platform

Reading O’Reilly’s chapter in Open Government, “Government as Platform,” was a turning point for me.  So far nothing else has given me a better conceptual model for understanding the role of government as information facilitator and innovation catalyst; nor illuminated more precisely what Open Government actually is and what proponents are fundamentally attempting to accomplish.

What the heck is Open Government, anyways?

From the time I started my independent study, I've been attempting to wrap my head around what exactly is Open Government, otherwise known as Government 2.0. In some contexts, people use these terms to refer to open data and information transparency to ensure government is held accountable and citizens have access to public information. Others use Open Government to refer to the innovative collaborations between government and citizens made possible by Web 2.0 digital technologies.  Some conceptualize it as eGovernment; doing the business of government — applying for various licenses, updating vehicle registration, etc — more efficiently online.  While still others envision it as eDemocracy, which "aims for broader and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies." Kicking off his initial description of Government 2.0, I love how O'Reilly asks, "What the heck does that mean?" My sentiments exactly!  And he nails it:

Much like its predecessor, Web 2.0, “Government 2.0” is a chameleon, a white rabbit term, that seems to be used by people to mean whatever they want it to mean.  For some, it is the use of social media by government agencies. For others, it is government transparency, especially as aided by government-provided data APIs. Still others think of it as the adoption of cloud computing, wikis, crowdsourcing, mobile applications, mashups, developer contests or all of the other ephiphenomena of Web.0 as applied to the job of government.

All of these ideas seem important, but none of them seem to get to the heart of the matter.

Web 2.0 was not a new version of the World Wide Web; it was a renaissance after the dark ages of the dotcom bust, a rediscovery of the power hidden in the original design of the World Wide Web. Similarly, Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government; it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time.

And in that reimagining, this is the idea that becomes clear: government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build institutions of government to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.

Government 2.0, then is the use of technology – especially the collaborative technologies at the heart of Web 2.0 – to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level.

Government as Platform

As I wrote earlier, information transparency is essential for healthy democracies and a necessary ingredient in governmental information management.  Yet it is only one facet in a much larger vision of the role government can play in the relationship between information and innovation.  We need to hold our governments accountable, yes.  But, wouldn't it be amazing if we went a step further and imagined ways for government to actually work better exponentially? Not simply ways to keep corruption in check? I'd like to play offense, not just defense in designing the world I want.  Consider O’Reilly’s profound metaphor of re-envisioning government as a platform: 

If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small. The personal computer was such a platform. So was the World Wide Web. This same platform dynamic is playing out right now in the recent success of the Apple iPhone.  Where other phones have had a limited menu of applications developed by the phone vendor and a  few carefully chosen partners, Apple built a framework that allowed virtually anyone to build application for the phone, leading to an explosion of creativity with more than 100,000 applications appearing for the phone in little more than 18 months, and more than 3,000 new ones now appearing every week.  

This is the right way to frame the question of Government 2.0. How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions?

Government as a platform’s primary role, then, is as facilitator and convener.  One of the points O’Reilly makes is that the government can’t compete with the speed and nimbleness characteristic of the private sector.  And why should it?  Government can provide the eco-system — the platform — for others to build on top of.  Remember, with the iPhone, Apple let others do what they do best: develop compelling applications. They simply provided a very well-designed platform.  

Platform Metaphors

O’Reilly brilliantly provides other metaphors in explaining his new (re)visioning of government. He contrasts government as “vending machine” to government as “bazaar:” 

This is a radical departure from the existing model of government, which Donald Kettl so aptly named “vending machine government.” We pay our taxes, we expect services, And when we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest – essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint. 

What if, instead of a vending machine, we thought of government as the manager of a marketplace?… A small number of vendors have the ability to get their products into the machine, the choices are limited, and the prices are high.  A bazaar, by contrast, is a place where the community itself exchanges goods and services. 

He also points to our national highway system is an example of “platform thinking:”

[T]he Federal-Aid Highway act of 1956, which committed the United States to building an interstate highway system, was a triumph of platform thinking, a key investment in facilities that had a huge economic and social multiplier effect. Though government builds the network of roads that tie our cities together, it dos not operate the factories, farms, and businesses that use the network… Government does set policies for the use of those roads, regulating interstate commerce, levying gasoline taxes and fees on heavy vehicles that damage the roads… and performing many other responsibilities appropriate to a “platform provider.”

Implications

If we are to reimagine government as a platform, we can then apply a host of design principles to help safeguard its success.  The first that O’Reilly discusses, and arguably the most important, is openness. He writes, “the platforms that are the most generative of new economic activity are those that are the most open.” Explaining how the innovations first in the PC era and then with the World Wide Web hinged on openness he asserts the “extraordinary power of open standards to foster innovation. When the barriers to entry to a market are low, entrepreneurs are free to invent to future.”

A second principle is to “build a simple system and let it evolve.”  This may be counterintuitive to some.  Why not build a wonderfully complex system that will fit the needs of many parties?  Don’t complex problems call for complex solutions?  When it comes to designing an open platform the answer is resoundingly — no.  A complex system limits the ability for others to grab hold of it, and manipulate it for their own purposes.  O’Reilly notes that “there are now thousands of Twitter applications, precisely because the core Twitter service does so little. By thinking simple, Twitter allowed its users and an ecosystem of application developers to evolve new features and functionality.  This is the essence of generativity.” To this point O’Reilly quotes John Gall who wrote Systemantics, an early and influential book on software engineering: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.  The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.  You have to start over beginning with a working simple system.”

O’Reilly identifies a number of other insightful and important principles to consider in designing a viable platform.  All are worthy of discussion, perhaps when it's not so late in the evening. A principle that I’d like to leave with is one that Noveck discusses as well in Wiki Government. That is: the importance of embracing an ethos of experimentation and a willingness to fail. Over and over again, as necessary.  

Noveck proposed that there be experimentation labs (I imagine these to be similar to Google Labs) where new tools, designs and processes can be worked out before being pushed to the main government portal sites.  Putting experimentations within the context of a 
“lab” could deflect some of the stigma around failure and encourage government personal to go ahead and try out new ideas.  

The ethos of many open source software developers is “fail early and often.”  O’Reilly speaks to differences in culture between those in the tech industry and the public sector:

A cultural shift is also required. Empowering employees to “fail forward fast” accepts and acknowledges that even when an experiment fails, you will still learn something.  Software and web culture not only embraces this mindset, but revels in it – you never know which idea will be the million-dollar idea.  Once the cost of that experimentation is reduced, you can quickly scrap a product or feature that no one uses…

In my mind, this cultural shift may be both the most difficult and crucial change to implement.
  
Conclusion

We are living in what Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams describe in Wikinomics as the “age of participation."  The benefits of first envisioning and then designing government as an open platform in this era are manifold.  As an open platform, government can benefit from innovations both inside and outside government.  It can also concentrate its efforts where it will be most effective as a platform provider; in providing the underlying information infrastructure that others can build on top of.   As an open platform, government can harness the creativity and abilities of the participatory populace and put our talents to use "to better solve collective problems at a city, state, national, and international level."

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Government Data and Information Transparency

My Monday night class, "Information Services and Resources," is taught by former Washington State CIO Gary Robinson. Recently Gary gave us several questions which we could choose to respond to in a reflection paper.  One in particular got my brain churning: what should the role of government be in managing information? 

Clearly, one major role the government plays is in providing information to the public. However, simply providing information isn't enough, not nearly enough. It must also be transparent. But what exactly do we mean by transparency?  For Beth Simone Noveck it means that information must be "accessible, searchable, and usable.” Her thought-provoking and informative book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful examines (among other things) the roles information and the design of information systems play in building healthy democracies and innovative societies.  As I've written previously, this woman knows her way around information!  While a professor at New York Law School, Noveck launched peer-to-patent, the federal government’s first open social networking project.  Currently, she leads President Obama’s Open Government Initiative as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government. Below is a quick and dirty summary of Noveck's three facets of information transparency. 

Accessible Information

Noveck explains, “despite forty years of the Freedom of Information act, which mandates the disclosure and publication (with exceptions) of information controlled by the U.S. government, not all government information is available to the public.” Furthermore, even after over 10 years of the Paper Reduction Act, which requires “online publication of documents, data are not all online or web-accessible.” Unfortunately, this inaccessible data is not frivolous or mundane in nature. According to Noveck, “Consumer Product Safety Commission’s database of dangerous products” and “filings of ethics disclosures by members of Congress” are not yet online.

Searchable Information

Reminiscent of another philosophical riddle: if information is made available to the public and no one is able to find it, is it still information?  Information must be searchable to provide any value.  Noveck recounts the poor search capabilities of many federal websites writing, “it is all but impossible for even the avid activist to locate and comment on pending proposals on regulations.gov.” Incredulously, many government websites don’t offer full-text search and documents are often “scanned and uploaded as images and are therefore not findable.” But you may be thinking, “well, Google can come to the rescue and help people find the information that is not uploaded as image files, right?” Sadly, no.  Noveck: “major search engines like Google or Yahoo do not index much or even most government information.”

Usable Information

As Noveck aptly writes, “more data does not always mean more usable data.” Governments need to understand how others    businesses, non-profits and ordinary citizens — will take their data and use it in different and often unexpected ways.  Think mash-ups, data visualizations, and iPhone apps.  “[I]it is insufficient to share information for purely passive consumption instead of releasing data in open, structured, machine-readable formats that make it possible for third parties to reuse, manipulate, and visualize the data.” Disseminating, displaying, and storing information as PDFs and images, not only makes searching for the information within these files next to impossible, it makes it equally difficult for others to reuse the data for their own purpose.  

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Sunlight Labs’ New Open API and Why You Should Care

More news on the Open Gov API front from Sunlight Labs

The National Data Catalog went live last week. Now we would like to share a little bit about our API and how it fits into our platform. The National Data Catalog (NDC) is an open source catalog for government data sets and APIs. Our goal is to have it encompass all data released by or about governments in the United States. This includes federal, state, and local jurisdictions. The NDC will harness the community of users interested in open government data. 

Their announcement has lots of cool, geeky details for developer types. Here's the most relevant information from an end-user perspective:

The richest user experience is available with the National Data Catalog web app. It is geared towards the general public, but with a focus on researchers, reporters, investigative journalists, and lovers of data far and wide. 

Some of you may be wondering why you should care about open APIs. Read my last post for more context. Very briefly, they allow third parties to repurpose, manipulate and do all kinds of interesting — and sometimes unexpected — things with the data.  As OpenPlan explains, "Open APIs allow for software developers to create novel data-driven applications, and those in turn create more direct, responsive relationships with citizens."  

The potential is huge especially when you consider that technologists like Robert Scoble think the future of the web will be API-driven.

Posted via email from Corazon y Mente

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