digital divide

Beware openwashing. Question secrecy. Acknowledge ideology.

You could spend a long day listing all of the organizations or individuals who are putting government data online, from Carl Malamud to open government activists in Brazil, Africa or Canada. As many conversations in the public domain over the past few years have demonstrated, there are many different perspectives on what purposes “open data” should serve, often informed by what advocates intend or related to an organization or institution’s goals. For those interested, I recommend the open data seminar and associated comments highly.

When and if such data includes ratings or malpractice information about hospitals or doctors, or fees for insurance companies, transparency and accountability is an important byproduct, which in turn does have political implications. (Watch the reaction of unions or doctors’ groups to performance or claims data going online for those conflicts.)

There are people who want to see legislatures open their data, to provide more insight into those processes, and others who want to to see transit data or health data become more open, in the service of more civic utility or patient empowerment.

Other people may support publishing more information about the business or performance of government because evidence of fraud, mismanagement or incompetence will support their arguments for shrinking the size of the state. A big tent for open government can mean that libertarians could end up supporting the same bills liberals do.

In the U.S., Govtrack.us has been making government legislative data open, despite the lack of bulk access to Thomas.gov, by “scraping.” There are many people who wish to see campaign finance data open, like the Sunlight Foundation, to show where influence and power lies in the political system. There are many members of civil society, media organizations and startups that are collecting, sharing or using open data, from OpenCorporates to OpenCongress, to Brightscope or ProPublica.

Whether anyone chooses to describe those activities as a movement is up to them — but it is indisputable that 3 years ago, a neutral observer would be hard-pressed to find an open government data platform. Now there are dozens at the national level. What matters more than their existence is what goes onto them, however, and there people have to be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.

While the raw number of open government data platforms around the globe looks set to continue to increase in 2013 at every level of government, advocates should be wary of governments claiming “open government” victories as a result.

Since Morozov sent out that tweet, he’s published a book with a chapter that extends that critique, along with a series of New York Times op-eds, reviews, Slate debates, and a 16,000 word essay in The Baffler that explores the career and thinking of Tim O’Reilly (my publisher). Morozov’s essay catalyzed Annaleen Newitz to paraphrase and link to it at post at iO9, where Tim responded to in a comment.

While his style can distract and detract from his work — and his behavior on Twitter can be fairly characterized as contemptuous at times — the issues Morozov raises around technology and philosophy are important and deserve to be directly engaged by open government advocates, as John Wilbanks suggests.

 

 

That’s happening, slowly. Sunlight Foundation policy director John Wonderlich has also responded, quoting Morozov’s recommendations to reflect out how he might specific uses of technology that support open government. Wilbanks himself has written one of the most effective (short) responses to date:

One of the reasons I do “open” work is that I think, in the sciences, it’s a philosophical approach that is more likely to lead to that epistemic transformation. If we have more data available about a scientific problem like climate change, or cancer, then the odds of the algorithms figuring something out that is “true” but incomprehensible to us humans go up. Sam Arbesman has written about this nicely both in his book the Half Life of Facts and in another recent Slate article.

I work for “open” not because “open” solves a specific scientific problem, but because it increases the overall probability of success in sensorism-driven science. Even if the odds of success themselves don’t change, increasing the sample size of attempts will increase the net number of successes. I have philosophical reasons for liking open as well, and those clearly cause me cognitive bias on the topic, but I deeply believe that the greatest value in open science is precisely the increased sample size of those looking.

I also tend to think there’s a truly, deeply political element to enabling access to knowledge and science. I don’t think it’s openwashing (and you should read this paper recommended by Morozov on the topic) to say that letting individuals read science can have a real political impact.

Morozov’s critique of “openwashing” isn’t specious, though it’s fair to question his depiction of the history of open source and free software and an absence of balance in his consideration of various open government efforts. Civil society and media must be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.

On that count, Wonderlich wrote about the “missing open data policy” that every government that has stood up or will stand up an open data platform could benefit from reading:

Most newly implemented open data policies, much like the Open Government Directive, are announced along alongside a package of newly released datasets, and often new data portals, like Data.gov. In a sense, these pieces have become the standard parts of the government data transparency structure.  There’s a policy that says data should generally be open and usefully released, a central site for accessing it, some set of new data, and perhaps a few apps that demonstrate the data’s value.

Unfortunately, this is not the anatomy of an open government.  Instead, this is the anatomy of the popular open government data initiatives that are currently in favor. Governments have learned to say that data will be open, provide a place to find it, release some selected datasets, and point to its reuse.

This goes to the concerns of traditional advocates working for good government, as explored in a excellent research paper by Yu and Robinson on the ambiguity of open government and open data, along with the broader discussion you’ll find in civil society in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership, where this dynamic was the subject of much concern — and not just in the Canadian or United Kingdom context. The work exploring this dynamic by Nathaniel Heller at Global Integrity is instructive.

As I’ve written before (unrepentant self-plagiarism alert), standing up open data platforms and publishing data sets regarding services is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society, particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society.

Socrata, a venture-capital backed startup whose technology powers the open data platforms of several city, state and federal governments, including Kenya and the United States, is also part of this ecosystem and indisputably has “skin in the game.”

That said, the insights that Kevin Merritt, the founder of Socrata, shared in post on reinventing government are worth considering:

An open Government strategy needs to include Open Data as a component of enabling transparency and engaging citizens. However, Open Government is also about a commitment to open public meetings; releasing public information in all its forms, if not proactively at least in a timely fashion; engaging the public in decision making; and it is also a general mindset, backed up by clear policy, that citizens need to be empowered with information and a voice so they can hold their government accountable.

At the same time, a good Open Data strategy should support Open Government goals, by making structured data that relates to accountability and ethics like spending data, contracts, staff salaries, elections, political contributions, program effectiveness…etc. available in machine- and human-readable formats.

The open data strategy advanced by the White House and 10 Downing Street has not embraced releasing all of those data types, although the Obama administration did follow through on the President’s promise to launch Ethics.gov.

The Obama administration has come under heavy criticism for the quality of its transparency efforts from watchdogs, political opponents and media. It’s fair to say that this White House has advanced an unprecedented effort to open up government information while it has much more of mixed record on transparency and accountability, particularly with respect to national security and a culture of secrecy around the surveillance state.

Open government advocates assert that the transparency that President Obama promised has not been delivered, as Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, and Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in the Washington Post. In fact, the current administration’s open data initiatives are one of the bright spots its transparency record — and that’s in the context of real data quality and cultural issues that need to be addressed to match the rhetoric of the past four years.

“Government transparency is not the same as data that can be called via an API,” said Virginia Carlson, former president of the Metro Chicago Information Center. “I think the ‘New Tech’ world forgets that — open data is a political process first and foremost, and a technology problem second.”

If we look at what’s happening with open government in Chicago, a similar dynamic seems to have emerged, as the city methodically works to release high quality open data related to services, performance or lobbying but is more resistant to media organizations pushing for more access to data about the Mayor’s negotiations or electronic communications, the traditional targets of open government advocacy. This tension was explored quite well in an article by WBEZ on the people behind Chicago’s government 2.0 efforts.

In the United States, there is a sizable group of people that believe that data created using public funds should in turn be made available to the public — and that the Internet is a highly effective place to make such data available. Such thinking extends to open access to research or public sector code, too.

As those policy decisions are implemented, asking hard questions about data quality, use, licenses, outcomes and cost is both important and useful, particularly given that motivations and context will differ from country to country and from industry to civil society.

Who benefits and how? What existing entities are affected? Should all public data be subject to FOIA? If so, under what timelines and conditions? Should commercial entities that create or derive economic value from data pay for bulk access? What about licensing? If government goes digital, how can the poor, disabled or technically illiterate be given access and voice as well? (Answers to some of these questions are in the Sunlight Foundation’s principles of open government data, which were based on the recommendatations of an earlier working group.)

In the United Kingdom, there are also concerns that the current administrations “open data agenda” obscures a push towards privatization of public services should be more prominent in public debates, a dynamic that Morozov recently explored in the opinion pages of the New York Times. My colleague, Nat Torkington, highlighted the needs for a discussion about which services should be provided by government at Radar back in 2010:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Whether one agrees with the side of the argument that supports investment or the other that is looking for cost-savings — or both — is something that people of democratic societies will need to debate and decide for themselves, along with the size and role of government. The politics can’t be abstracted away.

I don’t think that many open government advocates are blind to the ideologies involved, including the goals of libertarians, nor that the “open dystopia” that Newitz described at iO9 is a particularly likely outcome.

That said, given the stakes, these policies deserve to be the subject of debate in every nation whose leaders are putting them forward. We’ve never had better tools for debate, discussion and collective action. Let’s use them.

What is smart government?

Last month, I traveled to Moldova to speak at a “smart society” summit hosted by the Moldovan national e-government center and the World Bank. I talked about what I’ve been seeing and reporting on around the world and some broad principles for “smart government.” It was one of the first keynote talks I’ve ever given and, from what I gather, it went well: the Moldovan government asked me to give a reprise to their cabinet and prime minister the next day.

I’ve embedded the entirety of the morning session above, including my talk (which is about half an hour long). I was preceded by professor Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO for open government at The White House. If you watch the entire program, you’ll hear from:

  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova, National Coordinator, Governance e-Transformation Agenda
  • Dona Scola, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication
  • Andrew Stott, UK Transparency Board, former UK Government Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement
  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova
  • Arcadie Barbarosie, Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, Moldova

Without planning on it, I managed to deliver a one-liner that morning that’s worth rephrasing and reiterating here: Smart government should not just serve citizens with smartphones.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments, for those of you who make it through the whole keynote.

The expanding world of open data journalism

From healthcare to finance to emergency response, data holds immense potential to help citizens and government. Putting data to work for the public good, however, will require data journalists to apply the powerful emerging tools in the newsroom stack to the explosion of information from government, business and their fellow citizens. The promise of data journalism has been a strong theme throughout the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s (NICAR) 2012 conference.

It was in that context that I presented upon “Open Data Journalism” this morning, which, to paraphrase Jonathan Stray, I’d define as obtaining, reporting upon, curating and publishing open data in the public interest. My slides, which broadly describe what I’m seeing in the world of open government today, are embedded below.

Open Government News on Gov 2.0 TV: The Year in Review, SOPA and POTUS on Google+

On Thursday, I joined Edmonton-based social media consultant and digital strategist Walter Schwabe on “Gov 2.0 TV” to talk about what’s new in open government since our last interview.

Over the course of the show, we talked about the following stories:

Transportation Camp DC gets geeky about the present and future of transit

Today in Washington, the “School without Walls was full of of civic energy around open data, tech, community, bikes, smart cities, systems, efficiency, sustainability, accessibility, trains, buses, hacking, social networking, research, policy, crowdsourcing and more. Transportation Camp, an “unconference” generated by its attendees, featured dozens of sessions on all of those topics and more. As I’ve reported before, transit data is open government fuel for economic growth.

A Case for Open Data in Transit from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Below, the stories told in the tweets from the people show how much more there is to the world of transit than data alone. Their enthusiasm and knowledge made the 2012 iteration of Transportation Camp in the District a success.


Fauxpen data, open data and bridging the data divide

My Ignite talk from the Strata Conference in NYC is online.

Comments welcome, as ever.

Update: In the context of fauxpen data, beware “openwashing:” Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society — particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society. Adopting open data and digital government reforms is not quite the same thing as good government, although they certainly can be and are related, in some cases.

If a country launches an open data platform but deprecates freedom of the press or assembly, questions freedom of information laws or restricts the ability of government scientists to speak to the public, is it adopting “open government” — or doing something else?

This is the ambiguity of open government and open data that Harlan Yu and David Robinson wrote about in 2012. Expect it to be the subject of more “takedowns” in the 2013.

Pew: Search and email are nearly universal among adult Internet users

The results of a new survey from the Pew Internet and Life Project will come as no surprise to most: Internet users: search and email top the list of the things people do online. These two activities have been the most popular since Pew first started tracking online behavior over the last decade. The advent of broadband, mobile devices and social media has not changed that dynamic, though it’s a safe bet that adults under 30 are sending quite a lot of Facemail, IMs and tweets these days too.

That said, Pew did identify a difference. “The most significant change over that time is that both activities have become more habitual,” writes Kristen Purcell. “Today, roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day; in 2002, 49% of online adults used email each day, while just 29% used a search engine daily.”

Search and email demographics

According to Pew’s numbers, search is most popular among adult internet users aged age 18-29, 96% of whom use search engines to find information online.

There’s also some evidence of a continuing digital divide based upon education and race. According to Pew, online adults, college-educated, and those in the highest income categories are more likely than others to use email.

“These demographic differences are considerably more pronounced when one looks at email use on a typical day,” writes Purcell. “Moreover, while overall email use is comparable across white, African-American and Hispanic online adults, internet use on any given day is not. White online adults are significantly more likely than both African-American and Hispanic online adults to be email users on a typical day (63% v. 48% v. 53%, respectively).”

This new survey and its findings should be read in the context of last year’s report that citizens are turning to Internet for government data, policy and services and considering in the context of the ongoing federal .gov website review.

If open government is to be citizen-centric, it will clearly need to be search-centric. That means ensuring that government websites are available in search and evaluating how search-centric redesigns at Utah.gov perform over time.

These results also suggest that as exciting as the integration of social media into government may be, officials tasked with public engagement and consultation shouldn’t neglect using email to communicate with citizens, along with Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and the other apps available to them. The difference in demographics usage of social media and email, however, does highlight that social media offers an important complementary channel to reach mobile citizens that access the Internet primarily through their mobile phones.

GSA’s McClure: Cloud computing and open data in federal government aren’t going away

To those in media, government or commentariot who think that cloud computing or open data might be going away in federal government after the departure of federal CIO Vivek Kundra next month, Dave McClure offered a simple message today: these trends are “inevitable.”

Cloud computing, for instance, will “survive if we change federal CIOs,” he said. “It’s here, and it’s not going away. McClure describes cloud computing as a worldwide global development in both business and government, where the economics and efficiencies created are “compelling.” The move to the cloud, for instance, is behind US plans to close or consolidate some 800 data centers,, including hundreds by the end of 2011.

Cloud computing was just one of five macro trends that McClure “listed at this year’s FOSE Conference in Washington, D.C. FOSE is one of the biggest annual government IT conferences.
inevitable. Here’s the breakdown:

1) Cloud computing

The GSA is the “engine behind the administration’s ‘cloud-first’ strategy,” said McClure, lining up the procurement details for government to adopt it. He said that he’s seen “maturity” in this area in the past 18-24 months. Two years ago, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was spending time at conferences and panels defining it. Now we have cloud deployments that are robust and scalable, said McClure, including infrastructure as a service and email-as-a-service.

Government cloud deployments now includes public facing websites, storage, disaster recovery andare beginning to move into financial apps.

2) Collaboration and engagement

The cloud is teaching us that once we free data, make it accessible, and make it usable, it’s
creating opportunities for effective collaboration with citizens, said McClure, noting that this trend is in its “early stages.”

3) Open data and big data

Data.gov has “treasure troves” of data that entrepreneurs and citizens are turning into hundreds of applications and innovations, said McClure. Inside of government, he said that access to data is creating a “thirst” for data mining and business intelligence that help public servants work more efficient.

4) Mobile

Mobile computing will be the next wave of innovation, said McClure, delivering value to ourselves and delivering value to citizens. Government is “entrenched in thinking about creation of data on websites or desktop PCs,” he said. That perspective is, in this context, dated. Most of the audience here has a smartphone, he pointed out, with most interactions occurring on the hip device. “That’s going to be the new platform,” a transition that’s “absolutely inevitable,” he said, “despite arguments about digital divide and broadband access.”

5) Security

As McClure noted, you have to include security at a government IT conference. The need for improved security on the Web, for critical infrastructure, on email and where ever else government has exposed attack surface is clear to all observers.

UN: Disconnecting Internet users is a breach of human rights [REPORT]

As the role of the Internet as a platform for collective actions grows, access to the rest of wired humanity becomes more important. Today, United Nations special rapporteur Frank La Rue released a report on freedom of expression and the Internet that described cutting off Internet access as a breach of human rights. The report, which was presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, is an important data point as governments around the globe decide how to legislate, regulate or moderate the disruptive impact of the Internet.

The UN report comes at an important time. As Mathew Ingram wrote at GigaOm, reporting on the recently released UNESCO report on freedom of expression online, governments are still trying to kill, replace or undo the Internet.

“The report provides initial guidance for countries that are grappling with how to address complex Internet policy challenges while upholding their obligations to human rights,” said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement released to the media.

“As Rapporteur La Rue affirms, the Internet’s unique ability to provide ample space for individual free expression can lead to the strengthening of other human rights, including political, economic and social rights,” said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Global Internet Freedom. “In order for these rights to be realized, governments, civil society and industry must all continue to build on the work begun by the Special Rapporteur.”

Both reports and the recent eg8 Summit shows online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. “The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, speaking in Paris.

What’s at stake today has been what’s at stake for more than 15 years, said Benkler: The possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down.”There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net.”

If an open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world, billions of people will be counting upon our leaders to keep it open and accessible.

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and exp…

[Hat Tip: TorrentFreak and Mathew Ingram]

Crawford: The open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world

“Access to the Internet is fundamental,” said Susan Crawford, an American law professor and former White House official, speaking at the The inaugural eG8 forum, held in Paris. These are the most important policies that government should be embracing. We want to make sure that other voices are heard.”

At the eG8, 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy. The forum, held before the G-8 summit of global leaders, showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders.

As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the at the eG8, civil society groups restaked their claim to the ‘Net. I spoke with Crawford about what’s at stake following an impromptu press conference held to highlight their concerns. Our interview is below:

“What’s at risk is the future of the Internet,” she said. It’s “whether it continues to be a distributed, open, platform for innovation, economic growth, democratic discourse, participation by all peoples of the world or whether it becomes a balkanized, taxed, blocked, controlled broadcast medium, which is what many incumbents would like to see.”

How close are we to that happening? “Luckily, we have a long way to go,” said Crawford, “because the people who use the Internet will continue to fight back with everything they’ve got.”

Watch the whole thing to hear what her take on why this matters to citizens, educators, children, and entrepreneurs.