Rufus Pollock on open data, civil society and the Open Government Partnership

Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, was interviewed at the Open Government Partnership conference (OGP) in Brasilia, Brazil in April 2012.

In the video embedded above, Pollock talks about his involvement with OGP and how civil society will be involved in holding government accountable. He also explains what open data means to him, including a definition and how it relates to traditional open government goals of transparency and accountability. Pollock recommends the Open Data Handbook as a resource to learn more and put data to work in the service of better government.

Open government means calling all hands on deck, not just civic developers

“I think that government is always going to need help, and that’s part of the message that we’re trying to spread… government not only will need help but will become an institution that lets people help, that encourages people to help out, and has a strong connection to the citizens its supposed to serve.”-Jennifer Pahlka, talking in a new interview with CNN on geeks helping open government.

Earlier this winter, Pahlka (aka @pahlkadot) delivered a TED Talk, “Coding a Better Government,” that now has over 300,000 views at TED.com and another 40,000+ at YouTube:

That talk and her SXSWi keynote — which was nearly three times as long and perhaps that much better — aren’t just about Code for America or civic coding or the impact of the Internet on society. It was about how we think about government and citizenship in the 21st century.

Jen’s voice is bringing the idea of civic coding as another kind of public service to an entire nation now. If America’s developer community really wakes up to help, city and state government IT could get better, quickly, as a network effect catalyze by the “Code for America effect takes off.

As Paul M. Davis wrote at Shareable Magazine, however, if the open government and open data movement is to help cities and citizens, it will need more than just “civic hackers.”

“To build resilient, peer-to-peer cities these precarious economic times demand, these conversations and collaborations need to be facilitated top-down, ground-up, and between every other decentralized community node that can contribute to weaving a diverse tapestry of a city’s political, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic data. …

To those of us who don’t think of ourselves as hackers but find ourselves applying that ethos to other trades—journalists, community organizers, field researchers, social justice activists, lawyers and policy wonks, and many more groups—let’s join the conversation, contribute our skills to the civic hacker community, and see what we can build together for our cities.”

If millions of non-coders collaborate with the geeks amongst us, learning from one another in the process, it could transform “hacking as a civic duty” from a geeky pursuit into something more existential and powerful:

21st century citizenship in which an ongoing digital relationship with government, services, smarter cities and fellow citizens is improved, negotiated and delivered through mobile devices, social media and open data.

We live in interesting times.

Is the Facebook “citizen cosponsor” app open government 2.0 or clever e-partisanship?

Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:

Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:

First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:

The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.

The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.

For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.

Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.

“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”

The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.

“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”

Over at the Huffington Post, POPVOX founder Marci Harris published a long post with substantive concerns about the citizens cosponsors app. (Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early angel investor in POPVOX.) Harris wanted to know more about who the sponsors of the app are (it’s funded by the Office of the Majority Leader), whether feedback will go to a citizen’s Member of Congress, whether “updates” will be neutral or partisan, who will have access to the list of constituents that is generated by the app, the capability to only express support for a bill, versus opposition, and the privacy policy.

In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.

Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:

…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?

No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.

Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.

That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.

That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.

In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”

I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective  from Harris in mind:

As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”

Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.

“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”

With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”

This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.

A Conversation About Social Media, Open Government and eDemocracy [VIDEO]

If the town square now includes public discourse online, democratic governments in the 21st century are finding that part of civic life now includes listening there. Given what we’ve seen in this young century, how governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with civil liberties, press freedom, privacy and freedom of expression in general.

At the end of Social Media Week 2012, I moderated a discussion with Matt Lira, Lorelei Kelly our Clay Johnson at the U.S. National Archives. This conversation explored more than how social media is changing politics in Washington: we looked at its potential to can help elected officials and other public servants make better policy decisions in the 21st century.

I hope you find it of interest; all three of the panelists gave thoughtful answers to the questions that I and the audience posed.

Prosecuting whistleblowers is antithetical to open government

As David Carr reported at the New York Times, the White House is using the Espionage Act to prosecute leaks to the media. Dan Kennedy explored the issue of aggressive prosecution further this morning at the Huffington Post. As both Carr and Kennedy observed, this White House has used the Espionage Act six times during this presidency. Prior to 2009, it has been used 3 times in total since it was passed in 1917.

Putting the questions of whether Wikileaks is open government or deserves to be on a list of the top 10 Gov 2.0 initiatives aside, let’s be clear on a critical issue: prosecuting citizens who share information about billions of dollars of government fraud, corruption or criminality undermines open government initiatives.

Open government should not and cannot risk national security, despite what proponents of radical transparency might advocate. If the release of open data leads to such outcomes, the death of open government won’t be far behind. Those that choose to risk the lives of diplomats, human rights workers and service members abroad through willful leaks of locations or cables are legitimate targets of the Espionage Act.

If open government is truly about transparency and accountability, however, whistleblowers whose actions do not meet the standard of putting lives at danger should be protected. For instance, is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state because he went public about billions of dollars that were being wasted in “financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs?”

Last year, I talked with Drake specifically about his case; our interview is embedded below. Judge for yourself whether his actions fit the standard laid out above — and keep in mind the following details from Carr as you watch:

When his agency was about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a software program bought from the private sector intended to monitor digital data, he spoke with a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. He suggested an internally developed program that cost significantly less would be more effective and not violate privacy in the way the product from the vendor would. (He turned out to be right, by the way.)

He was charged with 10 felony counts that accused him of lying to investigators and obstructing justice. Last summer, the case against him collapsed, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor, of misuse of a government computer.

While the Obama administration deserves credit for federal open government initiatives, on this count the actions of its Justice Department undermine both the efforts of public servants trying to act in good faith and those of investigative journalists trying to serve the public trust, along with leaving it open to charges of hypocrisy on open government promises or veneration of are correspondents who have been killed abroad.

As David Carr points out, that’s problematic on several levels:

These kinds of prosecutions can have ripples well beyond the immediate proceedings. Two reporters in Washington who work on national security issues said that the rulings had created a chilly environment between journalists and people who work at the various government agencies.

During a point in history when our government has been accused of sending prisoners to secret locations where they were said to have been tortured and the C.I.A. is conducting remote-controlled wars in far-flung places, it’s not a good time to treat the people who aid in the publication of critical information as spies.

Whistleblowers that focus upon waste and corruption, where the risk is primarily to those guilty of bureaucratic incompetence, cost overruns, environmental degradation, safety hazards or rigged procurements, should be people that the White House uses its considerable power to protect, not prosecute. That’s why whistleblower and retaliation protections exist under the law.

If, Ralph Nader said, information is the currency of democracy, perhaps our elected leaders should take action to ensure that those who risk their careers by sharing direct threats to the public interest are not made beggars.

How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:

  • 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
  • 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
  • 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.

The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.

What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.

That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.

This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.

Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS

  • Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
  • Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
  • Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center