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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.  

Posted via email from Corazon y Mente

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