A future of cities fueled by citizens, open data and collaborative consumption

The future of cities was a hot topic this year at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, with two different panels devoted to thinking about what’s next. I moderated one of them, on “shaping cities with mobile data.” Megan Schumann, a consultant at Deloitte, was present at both sessions and storified them. Her curatorial should gives you a sense of the zeitgeist of ideas shared.

On the ambiguity of open government and open data

A new paper on “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’” by Princeton scholars David Robinson and Harlan Yu is essential reading on the state of open government and open data in 2012. As the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper noted in a post about the new paper and open government data this morning, “paying close attention to language can reveal what’s going on in the world around you.”

From the abstract:

“Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.”

Yu succinctly explained his thinking in two more tweets:

While it remains to be seen whether the Open Knowledge Foundation will be “open” to changing the “Open Data Handbook” to the “Adaptable Data Handbook,” Yu and Robinson are after something important here.

There’s good reason to be careful about celebrating the progress in cities, states and counties are making in standing up open government data platforms. Here’s an excerpt from a post on open government data on Radar last year:

Open government analysts like Nathaniel Heller have raised concerns about the role of open data in the Open Government Partnership, specifically that:

“… open data provides an easy way out for some governments to avoid the much harder, and likely more transformative, open government reforms that should probably be higher up on their lists. Instead of fetishizing open data portals for the sake of having open data portals, I’d rather see governments incorporating open data as a way to address more fundamental structural challenges around extractives (through maps and budget data), the political process (through real-time disclosure of campaign contributions), or budget priorities (through online publication of budget line-items).”

Similarly, Greg Michener has made a case for getting the legal and regulatory “plumbing” for open government right in Brazil, not “boutique Gov 2.0” projects that graft technology onto flawed governance systems. Michener warned that emulating the government 2.0 initiatives of advanced countries, including open data initiatives:

“… may be a premature strategy for emerging democracies. While advanced democracies are mostly tweaking and improving upon value-systems and infrastructure already in place, most countries within the OGP have only begun the adoption process.”

Michener and Heller both raise bedrock issues for open government in Brazil and beyond that no technology solution in of itself will address. They’re both right: 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.

Heller and Michener speak for an important part of the open government community and surely articulate concerns that exist for many people, particularly for a “good government” constituency whose long term, quiet work on government transparency and accountability may not be receiving the same attention as shinier technology initiatives.

Harper teased out something important on that count: “There’s nothing wrong with open government data, but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. I think in terms of a subject-matter trio—deliberations, management, and results—data about which makes for a more open, more transparent government. Everything else, while entirely welcome, is just open government data.”

This new paper will go a long way to clarifying and teasing out those issues.

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.

San Francisco pitches lean government as a platform for innovation [PRESENTATION]

Over at TechCrunch, Eric @Eldon reports that “San Francisco Launches The 2012 Innovation Portfolio, From Open Taxi Data To Beta Tests In City Hall,” sourcing the post on a presentation from the city’s innovation staff, which I’ve embedded below. Eldon posts a summary over in his post but here’s the gist of it:

Mayor Ed Lee, who came to power last year with heavy support from the local tech scene, is announcing a new initiative today at the TechFellows awards ceremony, that has some intriguing ideas for making the city itself more relevant to the booming industry within it.

Broadly, the so-called 2012 Innovation Portfolio is trying to do everything from helping founders making it easier to complete the paperwork for creating a company, to giving developers new access to city data, to introducing new ways for citizens to share their opinions with the city, to actually testing out tech products at City Hall itself.

As Sara Lai Stirland reported last month, however, while San Francisco’s plans for open government, open data, open doors to new business and better services is focused on worthy goals, achieving them won’t be a walk in Golden Gate Park. Then again, it’s rare that anything worth doing is easy.

Honestly, in reading this over, I’m not sure about how much of this innovation initiative is truly new, although there is one news nugget “As part of this effort, the City is moving to a cloud-based data sharing service for launch in March.”

While that appears to have perplexed Eldon, many Govfresh readers will be able decipher it: San Francisco looks likely to be adopting Socrata next month. If so, that means that, in theory, civic developers will have more (better?) APIs for SF open data soon.

I have a feature in the works on what San Francisco is up to in open government and will report back when I have more to share.

Update: Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell noticed that San Francisco’s new innovation site is running on WordPress. In doing so, the city government would be adopting two of the planks from Luke’s manifesto to reboot government innovation in San Francisco. It’s a promising start.

Regulations.gov relaunches with APIs, integrates social media, hopes for public participation

President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2751, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On January 18, 2011, President Obama issued an executive order directing that regulations shall be adopted through a process that involves participation. 13 months later, the nation’s primary online regulatory website received an overdue redesign and, significantly, a commitment from the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to make regulatory data available to the public.

Today, the White House announced the relaunch of Regulations.gov in a post on remaking public participation by Cass Sunstein, the administrator of the OIRA:

…the President issues Executive Order 13563, in which he directed regulatory agencies to base regulations on an “open exchange of information and perspectives” and to promote public participation in Federal rulemaking.  The President identified Regulations.gov as the centralized portal for timely public access to regulatory content online.

In response to the President’s direction, Regulations.gov has launched a major redesign, including innovative new search tools, social media connections, and better access to regulatory data.  The result is a significantly improved website that will help members of the public to engage with agencies and ultimately to improve the content of rules.

The redesign of Regulations.gov also fulfills the President’s commitment in The Open Government Partnership National Action Plan to “improve public services,” including to “expand public participation in the development of regulations.” This step is just one of many, consistent with the National Action Plan, designed to make our Federal Government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

I’ve embedded the video that Regulations.gov released about the launch below:

The relaunch includes the following changes:

  • New Regulations.gov and Web design.
  • A new “Browse” tab that groups regulations into 10 categories, sorted by industry
  • A new “Learn” tab that describes the regulatory process
  • Improved search
  • Integrated social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Regulations.gov Exchange)
  • New Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and standard, Federal Register-specific URLs.

That last detail will be of particular interest to the open government and open data community. Sunstein explained the thinking behind the role of APIs at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are technical interfaces/tools that allow people to pull regulatory content from Regulations.gov. For most of us, the addition of “APIs” on Regulations.gov doesn’t mean much, but for web managers and experts in the applications community, providing APIs will fundamentally change the way people will be able to interact with public federal regulatory data and content.

The initial APIs will enable developers to pull data out of Regulations.gov, and in future releases, the site will include APIs for receiving comment submissions from other sites. With the addition of APIs, other web sites – ranging from other Government sites to industry associations to public interest groups – will now be able to repurpose publicly-available regulatory information on Regulations.gov, and format this information in unique ways such as mobile apps, analytical tools, “widgets” and “mashups.” We don’t know exactly where this will lead us – technological advances are full of surprises – but we are likely to see major improvements in public understanding and participation in rulemaking.

While the APIs will need to be explored and the data behind them assessed for quality, releasing regulatory data through APIs could in theory underpin a wide variety of new consumer-facing services. If you’re interested in the APIs, click on “Developers – Beta” at Regulations.gov to download a PDF with that contains API directions, URLs and information about an API Key.

A time for e-rulemaking

This move comes as part of a larger effort towards e-rulemaking by this White House that will almost certainly be carried over into future administrations, regardless of the political persuasion of the incumbent of the Oval Office. In the 21st century, the country desperately needs a smarter approach to regulations.

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.

As the cover story of this month’s issue of The Economist highlights, 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.

We’ll see if an upgraded online portal that is being touted as a means to include the public in participating in rulemaking makes any difference in 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.

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.

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.

How do you build online community and moderate social media?

Last month, I wrote a popular post on the value of blog comments. My take: Whether you choose to have comments or not speaks to whether you want to create an online community, which requires a human’s touch to manage and moderate, or to simply publish your thoughts publicly online, without making the necessary commitment of time and patience.

As is often the case, I agree with Mathew Ingram: blog comments are worth the effort. Last week, I had the opportunity to expand upon what I meant in a public forum here in the District of Columbia during Social Media Week.

Creating and managing high quality online conversations isn’t easy but I strongly believe that it’s worth it. Following is a storify of the online conversation that emerged on the Twitter “backchannel” during the panel discussion and some rules of the road that explain how I’m approaching moderation on Facebook and Google+, where I now have over 50,000 circlers/subscribers combined.

On moderating Facebook and Google+ public pages

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of spam and pornography links pop up on the blogs I moderate, on Facebook and on the Google+. Fortunately, Google and Facebook both give us the ability to moderate comments and, if we wish, to block other people who do not respect the opinions or character of others. Last month, I saw a lack of clarity about my approach to online community, so here’s how I think about it, with a nod to Dan Gillmor’s example:

I can and do block spammers and people posting links to pornography.

I generally leave comments on my blogs, precisely because I value conversations, despite the issues that persist online. I have been moderating discussion in online forums and blogs for many years, including those of my publishers.

Insulting me, slandering my employer or my professional work won’t help your case. Insulting others will ruin it.
I was a teacher in my twenties. I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior in my classroom, either to me or to other students. If you can’t be civil and continue to insult others, much less the person hosting the forum, you were asked to leave and see the principal.

If the behavior persists, you will lose the privilege of participating in the class at all.
Eventually, you get expelled. On Google+ or blogs, that takes the form of being defriended, banned or blocked from my public updates. I prefer not to block users but I will do so. I respect your right to speak freely on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook or Google+ account, whether that involves cursing or ignorance.

I strongly believe in the First Amendment, with respect to government not censoring citizens. That said, I do not feel obligated to host such speech on my own blog, particularly if it is directed towards other commenters. I believe that building and maintaining healthy communities, online of offline, requires that the people hosting them enforce standards for participation that encourage civil dialogue.

I hope that makes sense to folks here. If not, you are welcome to let me know in the comments.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.

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