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November 02 2012

Charging up: Networking resources and recovery after Hurricane Sandy

Even though the direct danger from Hurricane Sandy has passed, lower Manhattan and many parts of Connecticut and New Jersey remain a disaster zone, with millions of people still without power, reduced access to food and gas, and widespread damage from flooding. As of yesterday, according to reports from Wall Street Journal, thousands of residents remain in high-rise buildings with no water, power or heat.

E-government services are in heavy demand, from registering for disaster aid to finding resources, like those offered by the Office of the New York City Advocate. People who need to find shelter can use the Red Cross shelter app. FEMA has set up a dedicated landing page for Hurricane Sandy and a direct means to apply for disaster assistance:

Public officials have embraced social media during the disaster as never before, sharing information about where to find help.

No power and diminished wireless capacity, however, mean that the Internet is not accessible in many homes. In the post below, learn more on what you can do on the ground to help and how you can contribute online.

For those who have lost power, using Twitter offline to stay connected to those updates is useful — along with using weather radios.

That said, for those that can get connected on mobile devices, there are digital resources emerging, from a crowdsourced Sandy coworking map in NYC to an OpenTrip Planner app for navigating affected transit options. This Google Maps mashup shows where to find food, shelter and charging stations in Hoboken, New Jersey.

In these conditions, mobile devices are even more crucial connectors to friends, family, services, resources and information. With that shift, government websites must be more mobile-friendly and offer ways to get information through text messaging.

Widespread power outages also mean that sharing the means to keep devices charged is now an act of community and charity.

Ways to to help with Sandy relief

A decade ago, if there was a disaster, you could donate money and blood. In 2012, you can also donate your time and skills. New York Times blogger Jeremy Zillar has compiled a list of hurricane recovery and disaster recovery resources. The conditions on the ground also mean that finding ways to physically help matter.

WNYC has a list of volunteer options around NYC. The Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted to “Occupy Sandy,” focusing on getting volunteers to help pick up and deliver food in neighborhoods around New York City. As Nick Judd reported for TechPresident, this “people-powered recovery” is volunteering to process incoming offers of help and requests for aid.

They’re working with, a new civic startup, which has now registered some 5,000 volunteers from around the New York City area. Recovers is pooling resources and supplies with community centers and churches to help in the following communities:

If you want to help but are far away from directly volunteering in New York, Connecticut or New Jersey, there are several efforts underway to volunteer online, including hackathons around the world tomorrow. Just as open government data feeds critical infrastructure during disasters, it is also integral to recovery and relief. To make that data matter to affected populations, however, the data must be put to use. That’s where the following efforts come in.

“There are a number of ways tech people can help right now,” commented Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director at NetHope, reached via email. “The digital volunteer communities are coordinating many of those efforts over a Skype chat group that we established few days before Sandy arrived. I asked them for input and here are their suggestions:

  1. Sign up and participate in the crisis camps that are being organized this weekend at Geeks Without Borders and Sandy Crisis Camp.
  2. Help create visualizations and fill in the map gaps. Here is a link to all the maps we know about so far. Help people find out what map to look at for x,y,z.
  3. View damage photos to help rate damage assessments at Sandy OpenStreetMap. There are over 2000 images to identify and so far over 1000 helpers.”

Currently, there are Crisis Camps scheduled for Boston, Portland, Washington (DC), Galway (Ireland), San Francisco, Seattle, Auckland (NZ) and Denver, at RubyCon.

“If you are in any of those cities, please go the Sandy CrisisCamp blog post and sign up for the EventBrite for the CrisisCamp you want to attend in person or virtually,” writes Chad Catacchio (@chadcat), Crisis Commons communication lead.

“If you want to start a camp in your city this weekend, we are still open to the idea, but time is running short (it might be better to aim for next week),” he wrote.

UPDATE: New York-based nonprofit DataKind tweeted that they’re trying to rally the NY Tech community to pitch in real life on Saturday and linked to a new Facebook group. New York’s tech volunteers have already been at work helping city residents over the last 24 hours, with the New York Tech Meetup organizing hurricane recovery efforts.

People with technical skills in the New York area who want to help can volunteer online here and check out the NY Tech responds blog.

As Hurricane Sandy approached, hackers built tools to understand the storm. Now that it’s passed, “Hurricane Hackers” are working on projects to help with the recovery. The crisis camp in Boston will be hosted at the MIT Media Lab by Hurricane Hackers this weekend.

Sandy Crisis Camps already have several projects in the works. “We have been asked by FEMA to build and maintain a damage assessment map for the entire state of Rhode Island,” writes Catacchio. He continues:

“We will also be assisting in monitoring social media and other channels and directing reports to FEMA there. We’ll be building the map using ArcGIS and will be needing a wide range of skill sets from developers to communications to mapping. Before the weekend, we could certainly use some help from ArcGIS folks in getting the map ready for reporting, so if that is of interest, please email Pascal Schuback at Secondly, there has been an ask by NYU and the consortium of colleges in NYC to help them determine hotel capacity/vacancy as well as gas stations that are open and serving fuel. If other official requests for aid come in, we will let the community know. Right now, we DO anticipate more official requests, and again, if you are working with the official response/recovery and need tech support assistance, please let us know: email either Pascal or David Black at We are looking to have a productive weekend of tackling real needs to help the helpers on the ground serving those affected by this terrible storm.”


October 03 2012

The missing ingredient from hyperwired debates: the feedback loop

PodiumPodiumWhat a difference a season makes. A few months after widespread online frustration with a tape-delayed Summer Olympics, the 2012 Presidential debates will feature the most online livestreams and wired, up-to-the-second digital coverage in history.

Given the pace of technological change, it’s inevitable that each election season will bring with it new “firsts,” as candidates and campaigns set precedents by trying new approaches and platforms. This election has been no different: the Romney and Obama campaigns have been experimenting with mobile applications, social media, live online video and big data all year.

Tonight, one of the biggest moments in the presidential campaign to date is upon us and there are several new digital precedents to acknowledge.

The biggest tech news is that YouTube, in a partnership with ABC, will stream the debates online for the first time. The stream will be on YouTube’s politics channel, and it will be embeddable.

With more and more livestreamed sports events, concerts and now debates available online, tuning in to what’s happening no longer means passively “watching TV.” The number of other ways people can tune in online in 2012 has skyrocketed, as you can see in GigaOm’s post listing debate livestreams or Mashable’s ways to watch the debates online.

This year, in fact, the biggest challenge people will have will not be finding an online alternative to broadcast or cable news but deciding which one to watch.

If you’re low on bandwidth or have a mobile device, NPR will stream the audio from the debate online and to its mobile apps. If you’re a Spanish speaker, Univision will stream the debates on YouTube with real-time translation.

The New York Times, Politico and Wall Street Journal are both livestreaming the debates at their websites or through their apps, further eroding the line between broadcast, print and online media.

While the PBS News Hour and CSPAN’s debate hub are good options, my preference is for the Sunlight Foundation’s award-winning Sunlight Live liveblog.

There are a couple of other notable firsts. The Huffington Post will deploy its HuffPost Live platform for the first time, pulling more viewers directly into participatory coverage online.

For those looking for a more… animated approach, the Guardian and Tumblr will ‘live GIF’ the presidential debates.

Microsoft is livestreaming the debates through the XBox, giving gamers an opportunity to weigh in on what they see through their Xboxes. They’ll be polled through the Xbox console during the debate, which will provide more real-time data from a youthful demographic that, according StrategyOne, still has many voters who are not firmly committed.

Social politics

The political news cycle has long since moved from the morning papers and the nightly news to real-time coverage of events. In past years, the post-debate spin by campaigns and pundits shaped public opinion. This year, direct access to online video and to the reaction of friends, family, colleagues and media through the social web means that the spin will begin as soon as any quip, policy position or rebuttal is delivered in the debate.

Beyond real-time commentary, social media will provide useful data for the campaigns to analyze. While there won’t be a “do over,” seeing what resonated directly with the public will help the campaigns tune their messages for the next debates.

Tonight, when I go on Al Jazeera’s special debate night coverage at The Stream, I’ll be looking at a number of factors. I expect the #DenverDebate and #debates hashtags to be moving too fast to follow, so I’ll be looking at which tweets are being amplified and what we can see on Twitter’s new #debates page, what images are popping online, which links are popular, how Facebook and Google+ are reacting, and what people are searching for on

This is quite likely to be the most social political event ever, surpassing either of the 2012 political conventions or the State of the Union address. When I watch online, I’ll be looking for what resonated with the public, not just what the campaigns are saying — although that will factor into my analysis. The @mittromney account tweets 1-2 times a day. Will they tweet more? Will @barackobama’s 19 million followers be engaged? How much and how often will they update Facebook, and to what effect?

Will they live tweet open statements with links to policies? Will they link to rebuttals or fact checks in the media? Will they push people to go register or comment or share? Will they echo applause lines or attack lines? In a larger sense, will the campaigns act social, themselves? Will they reshare the people’s posts about them on social platforms or keep broadcasting?

We’ll know answers to all of these questions in a few hours.

Fact-checking in real-time

Continuing a trend from the primary season, real-time fact-checking will play a role in the debate. The difference in this historic moment is it will be the pace of it and the number of players.

As Nick Judd highlighted at techPresident, the campaign response is going to be all about mobile. Both campaigns will be trying their hands at fact checking, using new adaptive microsites at and, dedicated Twitter accounts at @TruthTeam2012 and and @RomneyResponse, and an associated subdomain and Tumblr.

Given the skin that campaigns have in the game, however, undecided or wavering voters are better off going with the Fourth Estate versions. Wired media organizations, like the newspapers streaming the debates I’ve listed above, will be using liveblogs and leveraging their digital readership to help fact check.

Notably, NPR senior social strategist Andy Carvin will be applying the same approach to fact checking during the debate as he has to covering the changes in the Middle East. To participate, follow @acarvin and use the #factcheck hashtag beginning at 8:30 ET.

It’s unclear whether debate moderator Jim Lehrer will tap into the fact-checking efforts online to push back on the candidates during the event. Then again, the wisdom of the crowds may be balanced by one man’s perspective. Given that he’s serving in that capacity for the 12th time, Lehrer possesses substantial experience of his own to draw upon in making his own decisions about when to press, challenge or revisit issues.

The rise of networked polities

In a larger sense, all of this interactivity falls fall short of the promise of networked politics in the Internet age. In the age of the Internet, television debates look antiquated.

When it comes to how much the people are directly involved with the presidential debates of 2012, as Micah Sifry argued earlier this week, little has changed from 2008:

“Google is going to offer some kind of interactive audience dial gadget for YouTube users, which could allow for real-time audience feedback — except it’s already clear none of that feedback is going to get anywhere near the actual debate itself. As best as I can tell, what the CPD [Commission on Presidential Debates] is doing is little more than what they did four years ago, except back then they partnered with Myspace on a site called that featured video streaming, on-demand playback and archival material. Oh, but this time the partner sites will include a dynamic counter showing how many people have ‘shared their voice’.”

While everyone who has access to the Internet will be able to use multiple screens to watch, read and participate in the conversation around the debates, the public isn’t going to be directly involved in the debate. That’s a missed opportunity that won’t be revisited until the 2016 campaign.

By then, it will be an even more wired political landscape. While many politicians are still delegating the direct use of social media use to staffers, in late 2012 it ill behooves any office to be seen as technically backward and stay off them entirely.

In the years ahead, open government advocates will push politicians to use the Internet to explain their votes, not just broadcast political attacks or campaign events. After all, the United States is a constitutional republic. Executives and Congressmen are obligated to listen to the people they represent. The existing ecosystem of social media platforms may give politicians new tools to interact directly with their constituents but they’re still relatively crude.

Yes, the next generation of social media data analytics will give politicians a dashboard of what their constituents think about their positions. It’s the next generation of polling. In the years to come, however, I’m optimistic that we’re going to see much better use of the Internet to hold politicians accountable for their campaign positions and subsequent votes.

Early experiments in creating an “OKCupid for elections” will evolve. Expect sophisticated choice engines that use social and legislative data to tell voters not only whether candidates share their positions but whether they actually voted or acted upon them. Over time, opposition candidates will be able to use that accumulated data in their campaign platforms and during debates. If a member of Congress or President doesn’t follow through with the wishes of the people, he or she will have to explain why. That will be a debate worth having.

September 20 2012

Congress launches in beta, doesn’t open the data

The Library of Congress is now more responsive — at least when it comes to web design. Today, the nation’s repository for its laws launched a new beta website at and announced that it would eventually replace, the 17-year-old website that represented one of the first significant forays online for Congress. The new website will educate the public looking for information on their mobile devices about the lawmaking process, but it falls short of the full promise of embracing the power of the Internet. (More on that later).

Tapping into a growing trend in government new media, the new features responsive design, adapting to desktop, tablet or smartphone screens. It’s also search-centric, with Boolean search and, in an acknowledgement that most of its visitors show up looking for information, puts a search field front and center in the interface. The site includes member profiles for U.S. Senators and Representatives, with associated legislative work. In a nod to a mainstay of social media and media websites, the new also has a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest online. (You can download a fact sheet on all the changes as a PDF).

On the one hand, the new is a dramatic update to a site that desperately needed one, particularly in a historic moment where citizens are increasingly connecting to the Internet (and one another) through their mobile devices.

On the other hand, the new beta has yet to realize the potential of Congress publishing bulk open legislative data. There is no application programming interface (API) for open government developers to build upon. In many ways, the new replicates what was already available to the public at sites like and

In response to my tweets about the site, former law librarian Meg Lulofs Kuhagan (@librarylulu) noted on Twitter that there’s “no data whatsoever, just window dressing” in the new site — but that “it looks good on my phone. More #opengov if you have a smartphone.”

Aaron E. Myers, the director of new media for Senator Major Leader Harry Reid, commented on Twitter that legislative data is a “tough nut to crack,” with the text of amendments, SCOTUS votes and treaties missing from new In reply, Chris Carlson, the creative director for the Library of Congress, tweeted that that information is coming soon and that all the data that is currently in will be available on

Emi Kolawole, who reviewed the new for the Washington Post, reported that more information, including the categories Meyers cited, will be coming to the site soon, during its beta, including the Congressional Record and Index. Here’s hoping that Congress decides to publish all of its valuable Congressional Research Reports, too. Currently, the public has to turn to to access that research.

Carlson was justifiably proud of the beta of “The new site has clean URLs, powerful search, member pages, clean design,” he tweeted. “This will provide access to so many more people who only have a phone for internet.”

While the new is well designed and has the potential to lead to more informed citizens, the choice to build a new website versus release the data disappointed some open government advocates.

“Another hilarious/clueless misallocation of resources,” commented David Moore, co-founder of OpenCongress. “First liberate bulk open gov data; then open API; then website.”

“What’s noticeable about this evolving beta website, besides the major improvements in how people can search and understand legislative developments, is what’s still missing: public comment on the design process and computer-friendly bulk access to the underlying data,” wrote Daniel Schuman, legislative counsel for the Sunlight Foundation. “We hope that Congress will now deeply engage with the public on the design and specifications process and make sure that legislative information is available in ways that most encourage analysis and reuse.”

Kolawole asked Congressional officials about bulk data access and an API and heard that the capacity is there but the approval is not. “They said the system could handle it, but they haven’t received congressional auth. to do it yet,” she tweeted.

Vision and bipartisan support for open government on this issue does exist among Congressional leadership. There has been progress on this front in the 112th Congress: the U.S. House started publishing machine-readable legislative data at this past January.

“Making legislative data easily available in machine-readable formats is a big victory for open government, and another example of the new majority keeping its pledge to make Congress more open and accountable,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Last December, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer commented upon on how technology is affecting Congress, his caucus and open government in the executive branch:

For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make — where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses — easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.

The data available on should be expanded and made easily accessible by third-party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector.

For any of that vision of civic engagement and entrepreneurship to can happen around Web, the Library of Congress will need to fully open up the data. Why hasn’t it happened yet, given bipartisan support and a letter from the Speaker of the House?

techPresident managing editor Nick Judd asked the Library of Congress about The director of the communications for the Library of Congress, Gayle Osterberg, suggested in an email in response that Congress hasn’t been clear about the manner for data release.

“Congress has said what to do on bulk access,” commented Schuman. “See the joint explanatory statement. “There is support for bulk access.”

In June 2012, the House’s leadership has issued a bipartisan statement that adopted the goal of “provid[ing] bulk access to legislative information to the American people without further delay,” putting releasing bulk data among its “top priorities in the 112th Congress” and directed a task force “to begin its important work immediately.”

The 112th Congress will come to a close soon. The Republicans swept into the House in 2010 promising a new era of innovation and transparency. If Speaker Boehner, Rep. Hoyer and their colleagues want to end these two divisive years on a high note, fully opening legislative data to the People would be an enduring legacy. Congressional leaders will need to work with the Library of Congress to make that happen.

All that being said, the new is in beta and looks dramatically improved. The digital infrastructure of the federal legislative system got a bit better today, moving towards a more adaptive government. Stay tuned, and give the Library of Congress (@LibraryCongress) some feedback: there’s a new button for it on every page.

This post has been updated with comments from Facebook, a link and reporting from techPresident, and a clarification from Daniel Schuman regarding the position of the House of Representatives.

August 29 2012

President Obama participates in first Presidential AMA on Reddit

Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “There are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”

President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.

“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.

The timing of the AMA was at least a little political, coming after a speech in Virginia and falling upon the third day of the Republic National Convention, but it is unequivocally a first, in terms of a president directly engaging with the vibrant Reddit community. Many people also tweeted that they were having trouble accessing the page during the AMA, as tens of thousands of users tried to access the forum. According to The Verge, President Obama’s AMA was the most popular post in Reddit’s history, with more than 200,000 visitors on the site concurrently. (Presidential Q&As apparently melts servers almost as much as being Biebered.)

Today’s AMA is only the latest example of presidents experimenting with online platforms, from President Clinton and President Bush posting text on to President Obama joining rebooting that platform on Drupal. More recently, President Obama has participated in a series of online ‘town halls’ using social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the first presidential Hangout on Google+.

His use of all them deserves to be analyzed critically, in terms of whether the platforms and events were being used to shine the credential of a tech-savvy chief executive in an election year or to genuinely answer the questions and concerns of the citizens he serves.

In analyzing the success of such experiment in digital democracy, it’s worth looking at whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted to see asked (on Reddit, counted by upvotes) and whether the answers given were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. On the first part of that rubric, President Obama scored high: he answered each of the top-voted questions in the AMA, along with a few personal ones.


On the rest of those counts, you can judge for yourself. The president’s answers are below:

“Hey everybody – this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.”

On Internet freedom: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.”

On space exploration: “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.”

On helping small businesses and relevant bills: “We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.”

Most difficult decision you had to make this term? ”The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.”

On the influence of money in politics ”Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

On prospects for recent college grads – in this case, a law school grad: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.”

First thing he’ll do on November 7th: “Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.”

How do you balance family life and hobbies with being POTUS? ”It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”

On +The White House homebrew recipe ”It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”

A step forward for digital democracy?

The most interesting aspect of that Presidential Hangout was that it introduced the possibility of unscripted moments, where a citizen could ask an unexpected question, and the opportunity for followups, if an answer wasn’t specific enough.

Reddit doesn’t provide quite the same mechanism for accountability at a live Hangout, in terms of putting an elected official on the spot to answer. Unfortunately, the platform of Reddit itself falls short here: there’s no way to force a politician to circle back and give a better answer, in the way, say, Mike Wallace might have on “60 Minutes.”

Alexis Madrigal, one of the sharpest observers of technology and society currently gracing the pages of the Atlantic, is clear about the issues with a Reddit AMA: “it’s a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.”

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA. Reddit is not a mic accidentally left on during a private moment. The kind of intimacy and honesty that Redditors crave does not scale up to national politics, where no one ever lets down his or her guard. Instead of using the stiffness and formality of the MSM to drive his message home, Obama simply used the looseness and casual banter of Reddit to drive his message home. Here more than in almost anything else: Tech is not the answer to the problems of modern politics.

Today’s exchange, however, does hint at the tantalizing dynamic that makes it alluring: that the Internet is connecting you and your question to the most powerful man in the world, directly, and that your online community can push for him to answer it.

President Obama ended today’s AMA by thanking everyone on Reddit for participating and wrote that “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”

Well, it’s a start. Thank you for logging on today, Mr. President. Please come back online and answer some more follow up questions.

Reposted byRK RK

August 13 2012

With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

“We were already working on the back-end to support this application but decided to pursue the app development when we heard about Apple’s plans with iOS,” explained Webb. “We were surprised by the public response around this issue (the tens of thousands who joined Walkscore’s petition and wanted to offer a constructive response).”

Crowdfunding digital city infrastructure?

That’s where Kickstarter and crowdfunding come into the picture. The Kickstarter campaign would help Open Plans make OpenTripPlanner a native iPhone app, followed by Android and HTML5 apps down the road. Open Plans’ developers have decided that given mobile browser limitations in iOS, particularly the speed of JavaScript apps, an HTML5 app isn’t a replacement for a native app.

Kickstarter has emerged as a platform for more than backing ideas for cool iPod watches or services. Increasingly, it’s looking like Kickstarter could be a new way for communities to collectively fund the creation of civic apps or services for their towns that government isn’t agile enough to deliver for them. While that’s sure to make some people in traditional positions of power uneasy, it also might be a way to do an end-around traditional procurement processes — contingent upon cities acting as platforms for civic startups to build upon.

“We get foundation and agency-based contract support for our work already,” wrote Webb. “However, we’ve discovered that foundations aren’t interested in these kinds of rider-facing tools, and most agencies don’t have the discretion or the budget to support the development of something universal. As a result, these kinds of projects require speculative investment. One of the awesome things about open data is that it lets folks respond directly and constructively by building something to solve a need, rather than waiting on others to fix it for them.

“Given our experience with transit and open data, we knew that this was a solvable problem; it just required someone to step up to the challenge. We were well positioned to take on that role. However, as a non-profit, we don’t have unlimited resources, so we’d ask for help. Kickstarter seems like the right fit, given the widespread public interest in the problem, and an interesting way to get the message out about our perspective. Not only do we get to raise a little money, but we’re also sharing the story about why open data and open source matter for public infrastructure with a new audience.”

Civic code in active re-use

Webb, who has previously staked out a position that iOS 6 will promote innovation in public transit, says that OpenTripPlanner is already a thriving open source project, with a recent open transit launch in New Orleans, a refresh in Portland and other betas soon to come.

In a welcome development for DC cyclists (including this writer), a version of OpenTripPlanner went live recently at The web app, which notably uses OpenStreetMap as a base layer, lets users either plot a course for their own bike or tap into the Capital Bikeshare network in DC. BikePlanner is a responsive HTML5 app, which means that it looks good and works well on a laptop, iPad, iPhone or Android device.

Focusing on just open transit apps, however, would be to miss the larger picture of new opportunities to build improvements to digital city infrastructure.

There’s a lot more at stake than just rider-facing tools, in Webb’s view — from urban accessibility to extending the GTFS data ecosystem.

“There’s a real need to build a national (and eventually international) transit data infrastructure,” said Webb. “Right now, the USDOT has completely fallen down on the job. The GTFS support we see today is entirely organic, and there’s no clear guidance anywhere about making data public or even creating GTFS in the first place. That means building universal apps takes a lot of effort just wrangling data.”

August 03 2012

Palo Alto looks to use open data to embrace ‘city as a platform’

In the 21st century, one of the strategies cities around the world are embracing to improve services, increase accountability and stimulate economic activity is to publish open data online. The vision for New York City as a data platform earned wider attention last year, when the Big Apple’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, pitched the idea to the public.

This week, the city of Palo Alto in California joined over a dozen cities around the United States and globe when it launched its own open data platform. The platform includes an application programming interface (API) which enables direct access through a RESTful interface to open government data published in a JSON format. Datasets can also be embedded like YouTube videos, as below:

“We’re excited to bring the value of Open Data to our community. It is a natural complement to our goal of becoming a leading digital city and a connected community,” said James Keene, Palo Alto City Manager, in a prepared statement. “By making valuable datasets easily available to our residents, we’re further removing the barriers to a more inclusive and transparent local government here in Palo Alto.”

The city initially published open datasets that include the 2010 census data, pavement condition, city tree locations, park locations, bicycle paths and hiking trails, creek water level, rainfall and utility data. Open data about Palo Alto budgets, campaign finance, government salaries, regulations, licensing, or performance — which would all offer more insight into traditional metrics for government accountability — were not part of this first release.

“We are delighted to work with a local, innovative Silicon Valley start-up,” said Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer, in a prepared statement. (Junar’s U.S. offices are in Palo Alto.) “Rather than just publishing lists of datasets, the cloud-based Junar platform has enhancement and visualization capabilities that make the data useful even before it is downloaded or consumed by a software application.”

Notably, the city chose to use Junar, a Chilean software company that raised $1.2 million dollars in funding in May 2012. Junar provides data access in the cloud through the software-as-a-service model. There’s now a more competitive marketplace for open data platforms than has existed in years past, with a new venture-backed startup joining the space.

“The City of Palo Alto joins a group of forward-thinking organizations that are using Open Data as a foundation for more efficient delivery of services, information, and enabling innovation,” said Diego May, CEO and co-founder of Junar, in a prepared statement. “By opening data with the Junar Platform, the City of Palo Alto is exposing and sharing valuable data assets and is also empowering citizens to use and create new applications and services.”

The success or failure of Palo Alto’s push to become a more digital city might be more fairly judged in a year, when measuring downstream consumption of its open data in applications and services by citizens — or by government in increasing productivity — will be possible.

In the meantime, Reichental (who may be familiar to Radar readers as O’Reilly Media’s former CIO) provided more perspective via email on what he’s up to in Palo Alto.

What does it mean for a “city to be a platform?”

Reichental: We think of this as both a broad metaphor and a practicality. Not only do our citizens want to be plugged in to our government operations — open data being one way to achieve this among others — but we want our community and other interested parties to build capability on top of our existing data and services. Recognizing the increasing limitations of local government means you have to find creative ways to extend it and engage with those that have the skills and resources to build a rich and seamless public-private partnership.

Why launch an open data initiative now? What success stories convinced you to make the investment?

Reichental: It’s a response to our community’s desire to easily access their data and our want as a City to unleash the data for better community decision-making and solution development.

We also believe that over time an open data portal will become a standard government offering. Palo Alto wants to be ahead of the curve and create a positive model for other communities.

Seldom does a week pass when a software engineer in our community doesn’t ask me for access to a large dataset to build an app. Earlier this year, the City participated in a hackathon at Stanford University that produced a prototype web application in less than 24 hours. We provided the data. They provided the skills. The results were so impressive, we were convinced then that we should scale this model.

How much work did it take to make your data more open? Is it machine-readable? What format? What cost was involved?

Reichental: We’re experimenting with running our IT department like a start-up, so we’re moving fast. We went from vendor selection to live in just a few weeks. The data in our platform can be exported as a CSV or to a Google Spreadsheet. In addition, we provide an API for direct access to the data. The bulk of the cost was internal staff time. The actual software, which is cloud-based, was under $5000 for the first year.

What are the best examples of open data initiatives delivering sustainable services to citizens?

Reichental: Too many to mention. I really like what they’re doing in San Francisco ( but there are amazing things happening on and in New York City. Lots of other cities in the US doing neat things. The UK has done some high-quality budget accountability work.

Are you consuming your own open data?

Reichental: You bet we are.

Why does having an API matter?

Reichental: We believe the main advantage of having an API is for app development. Of course, there will be other use cases that we can’t even think of right now.

Why did you choose Junar instead of Socrata, CKAN or the OGPL from the U.S. federal government?

Reichental: We did review most of the products in the marketplace including some open source solutions. Each had merits. We ultimately decided on Junar for a 1-year commitment, as it seemed to strike the right balance of features, cost, and vision alignment.

Palo Alto has a couple developers in it. How are you engaging them to work with your data?

Reichental: That’s quite the understatement! The buzz already in the developer community is palpable. We’ve been swamped with requests and ideas already. We think one of the first places we’ll see good usage is in the myriad of hackathons/code jams held in the area.

What are the conditions for using your data or making apps?

Reichental: Our terms and conditions are straightforward. The data can be freely used by anyone for almost any purpose, but the condition of use is that the City has no liability or relationship with the use of the data or any derivative.

You told Mashable that you’re trying to acting like a “lean startup.” What does that mean, in practice?

Reichental: This initiative is a good example. Rather than spend time making the go-live product perfect, we went for speed-to-market with the minimally viable solution to get community feedback. We’ll use that feedback to quickly improve on the solution.

With the recent go-live of our redesigned public website, we launched it initially as a beta site; warts and all. We received lots of valuable feedback, made many of the suggested changes, and then cutover from the beta to production. We ended up with a better product.

Our intent is to get more useful capability out to our community and City staff in shorter time. We want to function as close as we can with the community that we serve. And that’s a lot of amazing start-ups.

July 30 2012

Mobile participatory budgeting helps raise tax revenues in Congo

In a world awash in data, connected by social networks and focused on the next big thing, stories about genuine innovation get buried behind the newest shiny app or global development initiative. For billions of people around the world, the reality is that inequality in resources, access to education or clean water, or functional local government remain serious concerns.

South Kivu, located near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been devastated by the wars that have ravaged the region over the past decade.

Despite that grim context, a pilot program has born unexpected fruit. Mobile technology, civic participation, smarter governance and systems thinking combined to not only give citizens more of a voice in their government but have increased tax revenues as well. Sometimes, positive change happens where one might reasonably least expect it. The video below tells the story. After the jump, World Bank experts talk about story behind the story.

“Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, the beauty of the project in South Kivu is that citizen participation translates into demonstrated and measurable results on mobilizing more public funds for services for the poor,” said Boris Weber, team leader for ICT4Gov at the World Bank Institute for Open Government

, in an interview in Washington. “This makes a strong case when we ask ourselves where the return of investment of open government approaches is.”

Gathering support

The World Bank acted as a convener, in this context, said Tiago Peixoto, an open government specialist at the World Bank, in an interview. The Bank brought together the provincial government and local government to identify the governance issues and propose strategies to address them.

The challenge was straightforward: the South Kivu provincial government needed to relay revenues to the lower level of government to fund services but wasn’t doing so, both because lack of incentives and concerns about how the funds would be spent.

What came out of a four day meeting was a request for a feasibility study on participatory budgeting from the World Bank, said Peixoto.

Initially, the Bank found good conditions with respect to strong civil society, despite years of war. They found a participatory budgeting expert in Cameroon, who came and did workshops with local governments in how the process would work. They chose some cities as control groups, to introduce some scientific rigor.

They shared scholarship on participatory budgeting with all the stakeholders, emphasizing that research shows participation is more effective than penalties in taxation compliance.

“It’s like the process of ownership,” said Peixoto in our interview. “Once you see where money is going, you see how government can work. When you see a wish list, where some things happen and others do not because people aren’t paying, it changes perspectives.”

Hitting the books

When asked to provide more context on the scholarship in this area, Peixoto obliged, via email.

“As shown in a cross-national analysis by Torgler & Schneider (2009), citizens are more willing to pay taxes when they perceive that their preferences are properly taken into account by public institutions,” he wrote.

“Along these lines, the existing evidence suggests the existence of a causal relationship between citizen participation processes and levels of tax compliance. For instance, studies show that Swiss cantons with higher levels of democratic participation present lower tax evasion rates (Pommerehne & Weck-Hannemann 1996, Pommerehne & Frey 1992, Frey 1997). This effect is particularly strong when it comes to direct citizen participation in budgetary decisions, i.e. fiscal referendum (Frey & Feld 2002, Frey et al. 2004, Torgler 2005):

“The fiscal exchange relationship between taxpayers and the state also depends on the politico-economic framework within which the government acts. It has, in particular, been argued that the extent of citizens’ political participation rights systematically affects the kind of tax policy pursued by the government and its tax authority. (…) The more direct democratic the political decision-making procedures of a canton are, the lower is tax evasion according to these studies” (Feld & Frey 2005:29)

“According to his (Torgler) estimates, tax morale is significantly higher in direct democratic cantons. Distinguishing between different instruments of direct democracy, he finds that the fiscal referendum has the highest positive influence on tax morale” (Feld & Frey 2005:19)

Participatory budgeting, which has been gaining more attention in cities in the United States as more governments implement open government initiatives, has had particular success in Brazil, pointed out Peixoto, who is native to that country.

“In the Latin American context, a number of authors have observed a similar relationship with regard to participatory budgeting processes,” wrote Peixoto.

“In the municipality of Porto Alegre (BR) for instance, Schneider and Baquero (2006) show that the adoption of PB led to a substantive increase in tax revenues. In another study Zamboni (2007) compares the performance of similar Brazilian municipalities with and without PB processes: even when controlling for other factors, the study finds a significant relationship between the existence of PB and the increase in tax revenues. Another comparative study of 25 municipalities in Latin America and Europe also finds a significant reduction in levels of tax delinquency after the adoption of PB (Cabannes 2004):

“What is the relationship between the PB process and the municipality’s tax revenues? Most respondent cities indicated that the PB process entailed an increase in tax revenues and a decrease in delinquency. In Campinas, Recife and Cuenca, tax revenues increased significantly in a very few years; in Porto Alegre, property tax delinquency dropped from 20 per cent to 15 per cent and, in less than ten years, property taxes grew from 6 per cent to almost 12 per cent of the municipality’s revenues. Mundo Novo, in Brazil,also emphasized the drop in tax delinquency and relates it to the transparency of public administration entailed by PB. The immediate visibility of the work and services that result from PB also tends to change the citizenry’s taxpaying habits.” (Cabannes 2004:36)

Presenting the mayors with the results of that research provided them a strong incentive to try participatory budgeting, emphasized Peixoto. The results from the pilot, however, provided evidence of the efficacy of the practice:

The World Bank found that tax compliance in Kabare went from 7% to 12% in Kabare. In Ibanda, the impact of the pilot was even greater, with 16-fold increase in tax compliance. After the pilot, the provincial government decided to start transferring money to local areas but only if cities used participatory budgeting in the process.

“This was an eye-opening process,” said Jean Bunani, senior counsel in the Ministry of Budget in South Kivu

, in a prepared statement provided by the World Bank. Bunani was one of the beneficiaries of the project. “As a result, the province started transferring funds to local governments to start providing basic services to citizens,” he said. “This had been mandated by law for years – and for years the law had been ignored.”

Peixoto insisted that the results in South Kivu be interpreted with caution. “It is difficult to confirm a causal relationship participatory budgeting and the increase in tax compliance at scientific levels thus far,” he said, “but the evidence collected thus and testimonials of local officials suggests the existence of this causality.”

Mobile technology helped increase civic participation

“The way the citizens and the provincial Government of South Kivu took ownership of this project shows that technology can help build more inclusive decision making processes even in fragile and low-tech environments,” said Weber.

The vast majority of people in the area don’t have computers. Mobile phones may be one of the most important technologies to enter the region in decades – and people value them, walking long distances to generators to keep them charged.

“This is a place where they don’t have electricity for houses but they charge phones,” said Weber.

The mobile technology initiative was coordinated with the cooperation of the local mobile operators and funded by the World Bank. 1 million text messages cost $10,000, when purchased in bulk. Over 250,000 messages have been sent in support of the project, as of February 2012. Whenever there was a region meeting to deliberate about where to spend budgets funds, every handset under the local cellular towers would get a text message about it. And after the meeting, everyone would get a message with the results.

“The benefits from the participatory budgeting outweigh those costs enormously,” said Peixoto. “For more people to pay taxes, they need to know participatory budgeting exists. That’s the mass mobilization. There was already a substantial increase in the year 2010, when the local government started consulting grassroots organizations on an informal basis. Nevertheless, the process gains steam in 2011, in which the full methodology of participatory budgeting is really in place, with direct participation of the citizens and with the support of mobile telephony. Please note that these results are evaluated with control groups. In other words, in cities without the participatory budgeting process, the same behavior is not identified.”

Peixoto followed up with a review of research on public participation. “Some evidence suggests that participation may be even more effective at curbing tax evasion than traditional deterrence measures, such as fines and controls,” he wrote. “At odds with conventional economic reasoning, the literature in the field of ‘tax morale’ suggests that citizen participation actually comes across as a better remedy for tax evasion than commonly adopted deterrence policies (e.g. Torgler 2005, Feld & Frey 2007, Feld & Torgler 2007).

Weber noted that it’s hard to know exactly what the mobile penetration is in the South Kivu area. Unreliable research estimates put handset ownership at 14%, he said, but people also share devices, which in turn means that it’s not the most accurate estimate for research purposes.

“The new global focus on results-based aid is creating strong demand for better feedback data,” said Weber.

“This type of initiative can provide it and help crowdsource the monitoring of development impact. As more governments start to make commitments as part of the Open Government Partnership, they now need to stand up to the challenge on how to do engage citizens in a meaningful manner,” said Weber. “This type of project provides us with valuable lessons how donors can support governments in this effort.”

Finding the ROI for open government

This project clearly shows some of benefits associated with open government, said Peixoto, but only when citizens are involved in the process. Technology, in that context, is an enabler but is not sufficient by itself.

“These benefits are only generated when there is real engagement of the citizens,” said Peixoto. “Both the politicians and those working on the ground very convinced that the transparency of the budget in itself would not suffice to generate the results that we now observe. Nevertheless, to ensure that real engagement happens is an extremely long process, which cannot take place without having all the stakeholders involved.”

In that context, making participatory budgeting work using mobile devices isn’t just about working with the mayors, regional government, development officials, citizens or telecommunications companies: it’s about systems thinking and collaboration between all of the stakeholders.

“While we spend 10% of our time to convince governments to make their budgets transparency, the other 90% is convincing them to let citizens having a real say on where the money is going,” said Peixoto. “The road from transparency to accountability is neither obvious, nor an easy one.”

He also noted that technology complements what he describes a core components of citizen engagement, participatory design and institutional reform. Which is to say, rethinking processes and institutions come first, followed by figuring out how to architect technology to support them. In the Congo, mobile phones supported participatory budgeting by reducing associated costs, avoiding elite capture, maintaining public engagement and raising awareness of the process, which helped gather popular support.

Exploring mobile government

South Kivu is also experimenting with mobile phone voting, including some beta tests during the budget meetings.

“Mobile voting is expected to be implemented in full-scale, enabling a large number of inhabitants to remotely participate in the process of budget allocation,” said Peixoto. “The program is now going beyond the pilots, aiming to institutionalize ICT facilitated participatory budgeting in other provinces in the DR Congo and beyond.”

Weber said that after the pilots, 100% of citizens asked preferred to vote by mobile. “With ballots, there were huge lines,” he said. “It’s really about the costs of participation. This spoke to them.”

An important next step will be finding more ways to bridge the digital divide to engage the community in an ongoing dialogue about governance, including more analog methods like “data murals.”

“We are interested in inverting the logics of innovation,” wrote Peixoto. “The replication of contents and processes from the offline world into the online world has been the focus of people working in this field for a long time. Now we are looking how we can bring elements of the online world to the offline reality of South-Kivu, where access to the Internet is extremely scarce. Hence, one of our priorities for the beginning of next year is the creation of ‘data murals’ in which budget visualizations often available in online environments will be painted on the walls of the cities. If the logic is that of ‘going where citizens already are,’ in South-Kivu we will bring data and data visualization to the streets: budget data in citizen readable format.”

For instance, in Brazil, they’re painting the numbers for the budget on the wall, said Peixoto. “So, you could paint data visualizations on street walls. Fancy online data visualizations are very nice – but what if there’s no Internet? You need to get creative. We want to bring data vizualization to the streets, with a physical version of a dashboard where you go back and do updates as steps happen.”

Peixoto expects that the experience in South Kivu will also help inform how upcoming participatory budgeting initiatives mediated with mobile technology will be implemented elsewhere in the world, from Brazil to Cameroon to the Dominican Republic.

“Organizations working with participatory budgeting in the United States and Europe have already demonstrated interest in learning from the experience of South-Kivu and the use of mobile phones,” observed Peixoto, who said that the approach is already being replicated in Cameroon, the Dominican Republic and (back) in Brazil.

“In Cameroon, we are making a randomized experiment to assess the impact of SMS as a means to mobilize citizens and avoid elite capture,” he said.

The World Bank as set up a beta website for the Cameroon project and is working on another one with the Open Knowledge Foundation, similar to “Where does my money go?” The visualizations will be used to inform the participatory budgeting process, providing citizens with the means to use those visualizations to indicate where they’d like money to be allocated.

“This all goes to show that innovations in open government go both ways, from developing to developed countries,” said Peixoto. “The fact that people are not blogging about it in English does not mean that it does not exist. Sometimes people are just too busy making it happen. “

July 25 2012

Mr. Issa logs on from Washington

To update an old proverb for the Information Age, digital politics makes strange bedfellows. In the current polarized atmosphere of Washington, certain issues create more interesting combinations than others.

In that context, it would be an understatement to say that’s been interesting to watch how Representative Darrell Issa (CA-R) has added his voice to the open government and Internet policy community over the last several years.

Rep. Issa was a key member of the coalition of open government advocates, digital rights advocates, electronic privacy wonks, Internet entrepreneurs, nonprofits, media organizations and congressmen that formed a coalition to oppose the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) this winter. Rep. Issa strongly opposed SOPA after its introduction last fall and, working with key allies on the U.S. House Judicial Committee, effectively filibustered its advance by introducing dozens of amendments during the bill’s markup.

The delay created time over Congress’ holiday recess for opposition to SOPA and its companion bill in the Senate (The PROTECT IP Act) to build, culminating in a historic “black out day” on January 18, 2012. Both bills were halted.

While he worked across the aisle on SOPA and PIPA, Rep. Issa has been fiercely partisan in other respects, using his powerful position as the chairman of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate various policy choices and actions of the Obama administration and federal agencies. During the same time period, he’s also become one of the most vocal proponents of open government data and Internet freedom in Congress, from drafting legislation to standardize federal finance data to opposing bills that stood to create uncertainty in the domain name system. He also sponsored the ill-conceived Research Works Act, which expired after received fierce criticism from open access advocates.

In recent years, Rep. Issa and his office have used the Web and social media to advance his legislative agenda, demonstrating in the process a willingness to directly engage with citizens and public officials alike on Twitter as @DarrellIssa, even to the extent of going onto Reddit to personally do an “Ask Me Anything.” Regardless of where one stands on his politics, the extent to which he and staff have embraced using the Web to experiment with more participatory democracy have set an example that perhaps no other member of Congress has matched.

In June 2012, I interviewed Rep. Issa over the phone, covering a broader range of his legislative and oversight work, including the purpose of this foundation and his views on regulation, open data, and technology policy in general. More context on other political issue, his personal life, business background and political career can be found at his Wikipedia entry and in Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker feature.

Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, is broken out into a series of posts that each explore different aspects of the conversation. Below, we talk about open government data and his new “Open Gov Foundation.”

What is the Open Gov Foundation?

In June, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) launched an “Open Gov Foundation” at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum. Rep. Issa said then the foundation would institutionalize the work he’s done while in office, in particular “Project MADISON,” the online legislative markup software that his technology staff and contractors developed and launched after the first Congressional hackathon last December. If you visit the Open Gov Foundation website, you’ll read language about creating “platforms” for government data, from regulatory data to legislative data.

Congressman Issa’s office stated that this Open Gov Foundation will be registered as a non-partisan 501c3 by mid-fall 2012. A year from now, he would like to have made “major headway” on the MADISON project working in a number of different places, not just federal House but elsewhere.

For that to happen, MADISON code will almost certainly need to be open sourced, a prospect that the Congressman indicated is highly likely to in our interview, and integrated into other open government projects. On that count, Congressman Issa listed a series of organizations that he admired in the context of open government work, including the Sunlight Foundation, Govtrack,, the New York State Senate, OpenCongress and the Open Knowledge Foundation

Th general thrust of his admiration, said the Congressman, comes from that fact that these people are not just working hard to get government data out there, to deliver raw data, but to build things that are useful and that use that government data, helping to build tools that help bridge the gap for citizens.

What do you hope to achieve with the Open Government Foundation?

Rep. Issa: I’ve observed over 12 years that this expression that people use in Congress is actually a truism. And the expression they use is you’re entitled to your opinion but not your facts.

Well, the problem in government is that, in fact, facts seem to be very fungible. People will have their research, somebody will have theirs. Their ability to get raw data in a format where everybody can see it and then reach, if you will, opinions as to what it means, tends to be limited.

The whole goal that I’d like to have, whether it’s routing out waste and fraud — or honestly knowing what somebody’s proposal is, let’s just say SOPA and PIPA — is [to] get transparency in real-time. Get it directly to any and all consumers, knowing that in some cases, it can be as simple as a Google search by the public. In other cases, there would need to be digesting and analysis, but at least the raw data would be equally available to everyone.

What that does is it eliminates one of the steps that people like Ron Wyden and myself find ourselves in. Ron and I probably reach different conclusions if we’re given the same facts. He will see the part of the cup that is empty and needs government to fill it. And I will see the part that exists only because government isn’t providing all of the answers. But first, we have to have the same set of facts. That’s one of the reasons that a lot of our initiatives absolutely are equally desired by the left and the right, even though once we have the facts, we may reach different conclusions on policy.

Does you that mean more bulk data from Congress, which you supported with an amendment to a recent appropriations bill?

Rep. Issa: Let’s say it’s not about the quantity of data; it’s about whether or not there’s meaningful metadata attached to it. If you want to find every penny being spent on breast cancer research, there’s no way to compare different programs, different dollars in different agencies today. And yet, you may want to find that.

What we learned with the control board — or the oversight board that went with the stimulus — was that you’ve got to bring together all of the data if you’re going to find, if you will, people who are doing the same things in different parts of government and not have to find out only forensically after you’ve had rip-off artists rip-off the government.

The other example is on the granting of grants and other programs. That’s what we’re really going for in the DATA Act: to get that level of information that can, in fact, be used across platforms to find like data that becomes meaningful information.

Do you think more open government data remove some of the asynchronies of information around D.C.?

Issa:A lot of people have monetized the compiling of data in addition to monetizing the consulting as to what its meaning is. What we would like to do is take the monetization of data and take it down to a number that is effectively zero. Analysis by people who really have value-added will always be part of the equation.

Do you envision putting the MADISON Code onto GitHub, for open source developers in this country and around the world to use and deploy in their own legislatures if they wish?

Rep. Issa: Actually, the reason that we’ve formed a public nonprofit is for just that reason. I don’t want to own it or control it or to produce it for any one purpose, but rather, a purpose of open government. So if it spawns hundreds of other not-for-profits, that’s great. If people are able to monetize some of the value provided by that service, then I can also live with that.

I think once you create government information and, for that matter, appropriate private sector information, in easier and easier to use formats, people will monetize it. Oddly enough, they’ll monetize it for a fairly low price, because that which is easy, but you have to create value at a low cost. That which is hard, you can charge a fortune to provide that information to those who need it.

Will you be posting the budget of the Open Gov Foundation in an open format so people know where the funding is coming from and what it’s being spent on?

Rep. Issa: Absolutely. Although, at this point, we’re not inviting any other contributions of cash, we will take in-kind contributions. But at least for the short run, I’ll fund it out of my own private foundation. Once we have a board established and a set of policies to determine the relationships that would occur in the way of people who might contribute, then we’ll open it up. And at that point, the posting would become complex. Right now, it’s fairly easy: whatever money it needs, the Issa Family Foundation will provide to get this thing up and going.

Rethinking regulatory reform in the Internet age

As the cover story of a February issue of The Economist highlighted, concerns about an over-regulated America are cresting in this election year, with headlines from that same magazine decrying “excessive environmental regulation” and calling for more accurate measurement of the cost of regulations. Deleting regulations is far from easy to do but there does appear to be a political tailwind behind doing so.

As a legislator and chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, it’s fair to say that Representative Darrell Issa (D-CA) been quite active in publicly discussing the issue of regulations and regulatory burdens upon business. As a former technology entrepreneur, and a successful one at that (he’s the wealthiest member of Congress) Rep. Issa does have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to run a business, to bring products to market, and to deal with the various regulations.

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this summer, Rep. Issa commented on a number of issues related to open government and the work of the committee. When we talked about smart disclosure and the reforming the Freedom of Information Act, I posed several questions about regulatory data, in the context of its role in the marketplace for products and services. Our interview on regulation is below, followed by a look at how his office and the White House are trying to use the Web to improve regulatory reform and involve citizens in the debate.

What role does the release of regulatory data from the various agencies, in the form of smart disclosure or other directions, have in creating market transparency, bringing products to market or enabling citizens to understand the quality of said products? What is the baseline for regulation? For instance, after flying a lot recently, I’ve felt grateful the FAA had regulations that meant my flights would be safes when I flew back and forth across the country or ocean. There’s some baseline for the appropriate amount of regulation but it’s never entirely clear what that might be.

Rep. Issa: I’ll give you a good example of why regulations that you believe in, you don’t believe in. Do you believe it’s dangerous to have your cell phone on as you’re going across country?

My understanding is that it is extremely likely that many people’s cellphones have been, in fact, left on while they fly cross country or while they take off and land. The probability of people not having switched them off is high. To date, I have not heard a documented case where a switched on cellphone interfered with the navatronics of the plane. [See Nick Bilton's reporting on the FAA and gadgets in the New York Times.] That logically suggests to me that it’s not as much of a risk as has been posited, but I haven’t seen the data.

Rep Issa: So, on a regulatory basis, your country is lying to you. I’m making the statement as I’m asking the question. Of course your country’s lying to you about the risk. Of course there’s a valid reason to turn off your cell phone: it’s so you won’t be distracted while they’re telling you where the exit is. So rather than say, “Look, we have the right to have you shut off your cellphone and we believe that for safety purposes you should do it, but let’s not kid each other: If you’ve got it on final so you can get your emails a little earlier by 30 seconds and you don’t mind your battery going dead a little faster, it probably has no real risk.’

The fact is your government has regulatory power to regulate an action for which they don’t actually have a good faith belief it’s causing damage. Just the opposite: they have the knowledge that these units are on all the time by accident, in people’s luggage, and our planes still don’t crash.

My problem with regulations is they need to have a cost benefit. And that cost benefit, the burden has to be against the regulator, not for the regulator. So when the EPA says, “You need to take the arsenic out of water,” as they did a number of years ago, and it sounded great, but the number was arbitrary and they had no science. And what ended up happening in New Mexico was that people’s small water districts went out of business. In some cases, people went back to taking what was ever in their well and you go, “Well, why didn’t they have a number that they could justify you absolutely had to have otherwise it was hurting you?” Well, the answer is because they never did the science, they just did the regulations.

So where does the balance lie, in your opinion?

Rep Issa: When it comes to individual liberty, I try to be as absolute as possible. When it comes to regulatory needs, I tend to be as limited as possible, both because of people’s liberty, but also because government has a tendency to want to grow itself. And if you let it grow itself, one day you wake up like the frogs that were slowly boiled because they were put in the water and didn’t notice it getting warm until they were cooked.

When I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve heard from citizens of other countries, particularly in the developing world, that one of the things that they admire about the U.S. is that we have an FDA, an EPA, an FTC and other regulatory bodies which they see holding our quite powerful corporations to some level of account. What do role those institutions have in the 21st Century to hold private interests, which have incredible amounts of power in our world, accountable for the people?

Issa: I gave you the EPA example because there was a debate that ultimately the EPA won on arsenic to the detriment of whole communities who disagreed, who said, you haven’t made the case as to why you picked a particular level. They all supported the idea that water should be clean. The question is at what point of the cost-benefit was it the right level of clean. And I remember that one.

Let me give you one in closing that’s probably perfect. Today, the FDA is unable to ensure that generic cancer and antibiotics are in sufficient supply, which was one of its mandates. And as a result, there’s a whole bootleg market developing — and the left and the right are both concerned about it — for both cancer and antibiotics because there’s a shortage. But the FDA had a regulatory responsibility to ensure that the shortage didn’t occur and they’re failing it. So the FDA has a job it’s not doing.

Additionally, people are traveling to Europe and other places to get drugs which are saving lives because they’re getting approved in those countries quicker. These are western countries with the equivalent of FDA, but they’re getting approved quicker and clinical trials are going better and moving over there.

So when we look at the FDA, you’re not attacking them because you think you shouldn’t have the Food and Drug Administration dealing with particularly the efficacy of medicines, but because the FDA is falling short in the speed to market, getting longer and longer, meaning people are being denied innovative drugs.

Can the Web help with regulatory reform and e-rulemaking?

Representative Issa, whose committee heard testimony on regulatory impediments to job creation last week, is not alone in the U.S. House in his interest in streamlining regulations. This week, Speaker Boehner and his caucus have been pushing to “cut the red tape” limiting or loosening regulations on small businesses until unemployment falls to 6%.
The administration has not been inactive on this front, although it’s fair to say that House Republicans have made clear that its progress towards regulatory reform to date has been unsatisfactory. One early case study can be found in FCC open Internet rules and net neutrality, where was used to collect public feedback for proposed rules. Public comments on were officially entered as official comment, which was something of a watershed in e-rulemaking. The full version of the final rules, however, were not shared with the public until days after they were voted upon.

In January 2011, President Barack Obama issued an executive order focused on reforming regulation regulatory review. One element of the order was particularly notable for observers who watch to see whether citizen engagement is part of open government efforts by this administration: its focus upon public participation in the regulatory process.
As I’ve
written elsewhere, this order is part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by the administration. In February 2012, relaunched with an API and some social media features, with an eye towards gaining more public participation. This electronic infrastructure will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office.

This summer, Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the Office for Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House, asked the American people for more ideas on how the federal government could “streamline, simplify or eliminate federal regulations to help businesses and individuals.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, the ongoing regulatory review by OIRA is a nod to serious, long-standing concerns in the business community about excessive regulation hampering investment and job creation as citizens struggle to recover from the effects of the Great Recession.

It’s not clear yet if an upgraded will makes any difference in the quality of regulatory outcomes. Rulemaking and regulatory review are, virtually by their nature, wonky and involve esoteric processes that rely upon knowledge of existing laws and regulations.

In the future, better outcomes might come from smart government approaches, through adopting what Tim O’Reilly has described “algorithmic regulation,” applying the dynamic feedback loops that Web giants use to police their systems against malware and spam in government agencies entrusted with protecting the public interest.

In the present, however, while the Internet could involve many more people in the process, improved outcomes will depend upon an digitally literate populace that’s willing to spend some of its civic surplus on public participation in identifying problematic regulations. That would mean legislators and staff, regulators and agency workers to use the dynamic social Web of 2012 to listen as well as to broadcast.

To put it another way, getting to “Regulations 2.0″ will require “Citizen 2.0″ — and we’ll need the combined efforts of all our schools, universities, libraries, non-profits and open government advocates to have a hope of successfully making that upgrade.

Do citizens have a ‘right to record’ in the digital age?

When Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and I talked this summer about his proposal for a digital Bill of Rights, I followed up by asking him about whether it might be more productive to focus on the rights that we already have in the digital context.

That conversation naturally led to a question about freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, both of which came under some pressure in the United States during the Occupy protests of the past year. Our interview follows.

How can we make sure that the ‘inalienable rights’ that we are endowed with already are receiving oversight and enforcement from our representatives?

Rep Issa: I think that when we’re aghast at what China’s doing to Google, it helps us say we’re so upset about that. I think we need to take examples, we need to see what we don’t like and what the American people want us to protect. Sometimes you look abroad for really bad behavior and then you look internally to find similar behavior, maybe a quantum leap lower, but it’s still there.

You mentioned Washington D.C. and Occupy. I think that’s a classic example where free speech was turned into free camping. The rights of the public broadly to enjoy an asset that was set aside for public use [were involved], where the Mayor — who doesn’t happen to be from my party or even my ideology — comes to us and says, “We’ve got rats, we’ve got crud. We’ve got all of these things that are spreading into the rest of the city. These people are not exercising their free rights for most of the day, what they’re doing is camping on grounds that were not designed or built or prepared for that.”

As it went on week after week after week, it wasn’t camping overnight, between the day you arrive and the protest the next day: it was effectively ‘living in.’ That’s a good example where the rules are pretty well understood, the history is pretty understood, and the enforcement at the end was pretty consistent with what it’s been over the years. Your presence can be a protest, but, at some point, your presence becomes simply an impediment to other people’s rights.

Are you concerned that there have been dozens of journalists arrested at Occupy protests? And I don’t mean just citizens livestreaming what’s happening, although one could make a case that they’re committing ‘acts of journalism.’ I’m referring to credentialed journalists arrested while they’re actively chronicling what law enforcement is doing to their fellow citizens.

Rep Issa: There’s a separate question, which is whether law enforcement is entitled to the cloak of secrecy as they pull you over for a DWI and their camera isn’t on when they rough you up but is on when you resist arrest. Those are areas of personal liberty.

We’re not dealing ‘digitally,’ but we are dealing with an era in which a policeman or other individuals demand the rights to video you involuntarily, when it suits them, and then object if you want to video their doing the same event but from an independent perspective.

Do I think the court has to rule on that? Absolutely. Do I think you have to find the anecdotal examples of most egregious behavior in order to prove the point? Probably. But I think there have been a number of them.

When they talk about arresting journalists, whether credentialed or not, the court has to weigh in and say the police should not be afraid of a camera. If they’re afraid of a camera, they might be afraid of a witness. And if they’re afraid of you and I watching for some valid reason, great. But if you and I watching and the equivalent, digitally capturing it, then they’ve crossed a line.

I want to be careful. Some of the arrests of journalists, some of those arrest examples include, basically, misbehavior of journalists getting in the face of people, shoving cameras at them and asking questions designed to be less than what you would call passive. Those are not necessarily the best example. It’s sort of like you look at the paparazzi and Princess Di dying: it wasn’t the finest day to claim that paparazzi had rights.

On the other hand, if it’s somebody who from a distance who is observing and video recording an actual arrest of or holding of some individual who is simply walking down the street and says, “Hey, don’t stop me, you haven’t got a right” — the two are very different. And passive observation by the press is a better one to take to the court because it’s a slam dunk First Amendment [case].

Aggressive behavior by press who get in the face and blocks somebody trying to move is always a little bit more of a call where you and I could probably find a point in which we would say that the First Amendment line has been crossed in that somebody else’s rights have been infringed.

This is important, because this is where the left and the right should come to a common ground. Strict adherence to rights, even when it’s inconvenient, is part of what makes America a better country.


This week, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police in the District of Columbia issued an order [PDF] affirming the public’s right to photograph and film police officers who are performing official business. The MPD’s action came as part of a court-mandated settlement of a lawsuit brought by Jerome Vorus, who claimed he was wrongly detained by the police department after photographing police activity.

The order “recognizes that members of the general public have a First Amendment right to video record, photograph, and/or audio record MPD members while MPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, unless such recordings interfere with police activity.”

Given instances of documented interference with credentialed media in the city of New York, such guidance might be useful in the five borough as well.

Does the Open Government Partnership merit more oversight and attention?

Brazilian President Dilma Roussef speaks at the 2012 annual Open Government Partnership conference

Brazilian President Dilma Roussef speaks at the 2012 annual Open Government Partnership conference

There are any number of responsibilities and challenges inherent in moving forward with the historic Open Government Partnership (OGP) that officially launched last September. Global Integrity’s recent assessment of the National Action plans submitted to the Open Government Partnership by participating countries found cause for both concern and optimism, As I’ve highlighted elsewhere previously.

The National Action Plan commits the United States to 18 different open government initiatives, including implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). One of the primary functions of the committee that Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) chairs in the U.S. House is to provide oversight of what’s happening in the Executive Branch of government. In that context, the Government Oversight and Reform has an important role in overseeing not just what the proposals are but how they’re actually executed by agencies. In March 2011, the committee held a hearing on open government initiatives in the United States.

Earlier this summer, I interviewed Rep. Issa about a number of issues related to open government at the federal level including the involvement of the United States in OGP. Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

There always will be people who only see the negative of the United Nations or before that, the League of Nations. There will be people who find the World Trade Organization a group that needs to be struck down, because they view the access by the developed nations to assets of the developing nations works to their detriment.

Using those as backdrops, any time lawful representatives of governments come together to see if, in fact, there’s a win-win, I applaud it. The question that I have with this formation is will they come back to their people and stand the test of the traditional question of what is sovereign and what isn’t? And more importantly, see if they have the will of their people broadly through actual new statutes. A lot of what we’re seeing in agreement abroad right now is that individuals from our government go over. They agree to agree, but they never come back and make the circle, of do the American people agree. Do their representatives have the information, and an intervening election, so that when they vote for it, they’re voting for something akin to a treaty?

I think you see it in TPP [The Trans Pacific Partnership], and other things, that sometimes what you do is you say, “Well, we’re bound internationally for that which has not been bought into by the country itself, the people of the country.” I’m broadly for these kinds of talks. I’m decisively against finding out that you’re bound to something that wasn’t approved, not just by legislative representatives but by the American people, because I can give somebody authority to go have a conversation. I can’t give them authority to make a deal on behalf of the American people that the American people don’t know until after the deal has been made.

With respect to the concerns Rep. Issa raised about whether the American people have been consulted, each one of these national action plans for the Open Government Partnership was arrived at with a public consultation with the people of the countries in question. (I was present at the third White House open government partnership consultation as a member of civil society and posted my notes online.) There has been criticism about whether those public consultations are good enough or not, including the one held by our neighbor to the north, up in Canada. (Full disclosure: I was asked to sit on Canada’s open government advisory board and made a series of recommendations for Canada.) Once agreed to, it will be up to civil society and Congress to hold the government of a country accountable for implementing the plans.

There will be inevitable diplomatic challenges for OGP, from South Africa’s proposed secrecy law to Russia’s membership. Given that context, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership — from the government co-chairs in Brazil and the United Kingdom to the leaders of participating countries to the members of civil society that have been given a seat at the table — will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made on all of these fronts. If the next President of the United States doesn’t directly support the partnership and its principles on the campaign trail and in actions, it will leave considerable room for other countries to score diplomatic points for joining without delivering upon the promise of its requirements for their people. If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: they must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they’ll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.

How will “open government” play into Election 2012?

It remains to be seen if open government or OGP comes up as a significant issue in the presidential campaign or in the context of this year’s Congressional election. While the Obama and Romney campaigns are heavily criticizing one another on the issue of “transparency,” from the White House’s mixed record to the former Massachusetts governor’s records in office or work in the Winter Olympics, the future of U.S. involvement in the partnership or its commitments in the plan isn’t making the campaign stump. For that matter, neither is open innovation in the public sector, including the use of prizes and challenges, or lean government.

That’s unfortunate. While there may be a strong rationale for both candidates for the presidency to focus on other issues than the emerging, often nebulous field of “open government,” including fundamental concerns like the economy, foreign policy, energy, education or healthcare, more open policies stand to benefit each of those areas. For instance, at the launch of OGP last September in New York, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee argued that more transparency in aid and financial markets attracts more investment in developing countries. The party that would stand to benefit the most from competition on open government would be the American people.

And, while the ambiguity of open government and open data has been driving discussions online for months now, there’s just enough traction behind initiatives around open health data, energy data, and smart disclosure for policy makers, legislators and the electorate to pay a bit more attention to what’s happening in those areas.

Image Credit: DL Photo/CGU at the 2012 Open Government Partnership Conference

Uncertain prospects for the DATA Act in the Senate

The old adage that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is often applied to organizations in today’s data-drenched world. Given the enormity of the United States federal government, breaking down the estimated $3.7 trillion dollars in the 2012 budget into its individual allocations, much less drilling down to individual outlays to specific programs and subsequent performance, is no easy task. There are several sources for policy wonks to turn use for applying open data to journalism, but the flagship database of federal government spending at simply isn’t anywhere near as accurate as it needs to be to source stories. The issues with have been extensively chronicled by the Sunlight Foundation in its ClearSpending project, which found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on the open data website was inaccurate.

If the people are to gain more insight into how their taxes are being spent, Congress will need to send President Obama a bill to sign to improve the quality of federal spending data. In the spring of 2012, the U.S. House passed by unanimous voice vote the DATA Act, a signature piece of legislation from Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA). H.R. 2146 requires every United States federal government agency to report its spending data in a standardized way and establish uniform reporting standards for recipients of federal funds.

“The DATA Act will transform how we are able to monitor government spending online,” said Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, in a prepared statement. “We’ve said time and time again that transparency is not a partisan issue, and we are proud to see there was broad support across the aisle for the bill. The DATA Act will increase transparency for federal spending data and expand when, where and how it is available online,” said Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. The DATA Act also received support from a broad range of other open government stalwarts, from OMB Watch to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW):

Orgs in Support of DATA Act

Discussing DATA

I spoke with Rep. Issa, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, about the DATA Act and the broader issues around open government data at the Strata Conference in New York City.

Daniel Schuman, the Sunlight Foundation’s legislative counsel, summarized our conversation on open government data over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog. Video of our discussion is embedded below.

Rep. Issa: …when I work with [Inspector Generals], they would love to have access to predictive [data analytics tools]. Today, they only have forensic. And in many cases, they have like stove pipe forensic. They only know after the fact, a portion of the data, and it frustrates them. We’re going to change that.

The DATA Act is bipartisan, which here in Washington is very unusual. One of the reasons is that people who want to know from the left and the right want to be in the know. We believe that by mandating standard reporting and a process of greater transparency and, of course, the tools created to make this easy and inexpensive for the private sector to participate in will give us an opportunity which will at some time be used by the left or the right or often used by simply people who have a vested interested in advising the private sector accurately on what is, has and will become events in government or for that matter, events in the private sector that are being aggregated through the government.

Your industry is going to be essential because if we give you more accurate, more easily compiled data, unless you turn it into information that’s valuable, we haven’t really accomplished what we want to. The same is true, though, unless you do it, my IGs won’t have private sector solutions that allow them to pick up COTS or near COTS solutions that are affordable and valuable and use them in evaluating government to drive out waste and fraud in government.

What’s next for the DATA Act?

The Senate version of the DATA Act, which is sponsored by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) remains “pending” in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee after a hearing last week, despite the considerable efforts of a new Data Transparency Coalition to move the bill. The hearing came one week after the coalition held a public DATA Demo Day that featured technology companies demonstrating different uses of standardized federal spending data, including claims that it could have prevented the scandal over excessive conference spending in the General Services Agency.

At the hearing, Senator Warner proposed an amended version of the DATA Act that would drop the independent board modeled on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board that oversaw spending from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as Joseph Marks reported for Next Gov.

The DATA Act, however, received a hearing but not a markup, as Daniel Schuman, the legislative counsel of the Sunlight Foundation, wrote at the transparency advocate’s blog. For those who aren’t well versed in the legislative process, “markups” are when amendments are considered. The DATA Act will have to pass through the HSGAC committee to get to the floor of the Senate.) In his summary of the hearing, Schuman highlighted the opposition of the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. Treasury Department to the Act’s provisions:

Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General, testified about a newly-issued GAO report on federal spending transparency, which alternatively praised and criticized OMB’s efforts to comply with legislation to improve information availability. During the Q&A, Dodaro explained that it may be helpful for Congress to enact legislation declaring what spending information it wants to have available to the public, as a way of establishing priorities and direction.

OMB Controller Daniel Werfel’s testimony [PDF] focused on OMB’s efforts to improve the accuracy and availability of spending information, largely defending the administration’s record. During the Q&A, Werfel emphasized that new legislation is not necessary to implement spending transparency as the administration already has the necessary authority. While his testimony highlighted the administration’s claims of what it has accomplished, it did not engage the concerns that OMB has dragged its feet over the last 4 years, or that OMB — as an arm of the president — may have mixed incentives about releasing potentially politically damaging information. He did explain that OMB has not released a statement of administration policy on the DATA Act, but that OMB (unsurprisingly) is less than enthusiastic about shifting responsibility over standard-setting and implementation to an independent body.

Treasury Department Assistant Fiscal Secretary Richard Gregg testified [PDF] about ongoing internal efforts at Treasury to improve data quality and projects that will yield results in the future. During the Q&A, Gregg explained that legislation isn’t needed for financial transparency, leadership in the executive branch would be sufficient. This raises the question of whether sufficient leadership is being exercised.

The question of leadership that Schuman raised is a good one, as is one regarding incentives. During July’s International Open Government Data Conference in DC, Kaitlin Bline, the senior developer working on the Sunlight Foundation’s Clearspending project, said that the problems with government spending data come from oversight, not technology.

Bline was blunter in her post on aGeneral Accounting Office, Congressional committees performing oversight of federal agencies, or special commission, notably the Truman committee during World War II. In the decades since, the work of inspector generals and Congressional staffers has been augmented by fraud detection technology, a critical innovation given the estimated $70 billion dollars in improper payments made by the federal government within the Medicare and Medicaid programs alone. (The fraud detection technology that was developed at PayPal and spun out into Palantir Technologies, in fact, has been deployed to that end.)

The promise of standardizing federal spending data, grant data — or performance data — is that those entrusted with oversight could be empowered with predictive data analytics tools and teams to discover patterns and shift policy to address them.

While the huge budget deficit in the United States is highly unlikely to be closed by cutting fraud and waste alone, making federal spending machine-readable and putting it online clearly holds promise to save taxpayers dollars. First, however, the quality of government spending data must be improved.

Important questions about the DATA Act remain, from the cost of its implementation for cities and states, which would have to report federal grants, to the overall cost of the bill to federal government. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the DATA Act would cost the government $575 million to implement over 5 years. In response to the CBO, House Oversight staff have estimated that annual savings from standards and centralized spending database that would more than offset that outlay, including:

  • $41 million in funds recovered from questionable recipients
  • $63 million in funds withheld from questionable recipients
  • $5 billion in savings recommended by inspectors general
  • unknown savings resulting from better internal spending control and better oversight by Congressional appropriators.

No formal subsequent action on the DATA Act has been scheduled in the Senate and, with the August recess looming and many eyes turning to cybersecurity legislation, there are uncertain prospects for its passage in this election year’s legislative calendar.

The need for the federal government, watchdogs and the people to be able to accurately track the spending of taxpayer dollars through high quality open government data, however, remains acute.

April 13 2011

„Freiheit vor Ort“: Netzpolitik und Urheberrecht auf lokaler Ebene

Die lokale Ebene ist auch in der digital-globalisierten Welt von entscheidender Bedeutung. Dort entscheidet sich, ob und auf welche Weise Menschen überhaupt Zugang zu digitalen Netzen bekommen. Und auch das Urheberrecht spielt im Rahmen von öffentlicher Verwaltung, Schule und Universität auch auf lokaler Ebene eine immer größere Rolle.

Bereits vor vier Jahren hat sich eine Gruppe junger Autorinnen und Autoren um Leonhard Dobusch (Urheberrechtsforscher an der FU Berlin) und Christian Forsterleitner (Gemeinderat im österreichischen Linz) in einem Buch mit dem Titel „Freie Netze. Freies Wissen.“ zum ersten Mal den Fokus auf die kommunalen Potentiale neuer digitaler Technologien gelegt. Dank einer Creative-Commons-Lizenz steht das Buch auch im Volltext als PDF zum Download bereit.

Gedacht als Beitrag zum Europäischen Kulturhauptstadtjahr 2009 in Linz, waren darin eine Reihe von konkreten Projektvorschlägen zur Umsetzung auf kommunaler Ebene enthalten. Einige dieser Vorschläge wurden in den folgenden Jahren auch tatsächlich umgesetzt. So gibt es seit 01. Januar 2009 in Linz beispielsweise einen zehnprozentigen Förderbonus für alle jene, die geförderte Werke unter einer freien Lizenz wie eben Creative Commons veröffentlichen (vgl. „Zusätzliche Förderung für Nutzung freier Lizenzen“).

Vier Jahre später folgt nun mit „Freiheit vor Ort: Handbuch kommunale Netzpolitik“ ein Nachfolgeband, ebenfalls Creative-Commons-lizenziert. Erklärtes Ziel des, um die Sozialwissenschaftlerin Manuela Hiesmair erweiterten, Herausgeber-Trios ist es, „ganz allgemein Diskussionen über digitale Freiheit auf lokaler Ebene“ anzustoßen. Zu diesem Zweck wurde die Perspektive erweitert und nicht mehr nur die konkrete Situation in Linz, sondern die kommunale Ebene ganz allgemein in den Blick genommen.

Neben Aktualisierungen und drei völlig neuen Kapiteln (z.B. eines zu Open Government) berichten in Interviews eine Reihe von Praktikern aus Linz über ihre Erfahrungen, Erfolge und Probleme bei der Umsetzung der Projektvorschläge aus „Freie Netze. Freies Wissen.“ – ganz getilgt wurde der Linz-Bezug also auch im Nachfolgeband nicht. Das Buch ist unbedingt lesenswert, als Anschauungsbeispiel und als Anregung für vergleichbare Projekte in anderen Städten und Gemeinden.

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