journalism

Eight open government recommendations for Canada

Earlier this year, I accepted an invitation from Canadian Minister of Parliament Tony Clement, the president of Canada’s Treasury Board, to be a member of Canada’s advisory panel on open government, joining others from Canada’s tech industry, the academy and civil society. The first — and only — meeting to date was held via telepresence on February 28th, 2012.

I chose to accept the invitation to sit on this panel — in an unpaid, nonbinding and entirely voluntary role — because I viewed it in the same vein as my participation in the open consultation on the U.S. National Plan for Open Government that the White House held prior to the launch of the Open Government Partnership last year. I viewed it as an opportunity to represent a perspective at the (virtual) table that valued the role of journalism and civil society. I disclosed my involvement on the panel using the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Here are the recommendations I made when I had an opportunity to speak:

1) Cooperation or partnerships with media for publishing and improving open government data. The Guardian’s datablog is top-notch in covering the United Kingdom efforts. This could include the ability to bring “cleaned” data back into a media platform. This should never preclude investigative work in the service of government accountability in the use of that data nor any restrictions regarding journalistic work.

2) A mobile strategy to involve citizens in governance, particularly remote towns, an issue in the immense country of Canada. Government should not neglect mobile websites, email and txt in favor of “Web 2.0″ services.

3) An “analog” strategy, to ensure all citizens offline are included in any open government process, whether it involves a consultation, election, budgetary guidance, including the use of phones and town halls.

4) A demand-sensitive approach to freedom of information requests. Media and open government advocates should be further empowered to get more access to crucial “good government” records and to ask direct questions of public officials. Dataset releases should be prioritized by both the public interest and in the public interest.

5) A focus on releasing raw government performance data about government services and about regulated industries, as means of driving transparency into industries and government, providing material for both government and corporate watchdogs to hold institutions more accountable. Joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as the United States has done, would be a substantive example of such a move.

6) A national citizen scanning initiative, akin to Carl Malamud’s “Yes We Scan” notion, to digitize government information.

7) A focus on meaningful engagement on social media platforms, not simply broadcasting political agendas, with incentives to listen to the concerns of constituents, not increase the volume of outbound communication.

8 ) Measure open data outcomes, not volume: I suggested later in the meeting that measuring the impact of open data should not come from the number of data sets published nor the number of apps on the minister’s iPhone. The success of the effort would be judged upon A) improvements to internal efficiency or productivity, B) downstream use of data, not total datasets published C) the number of applications that are actively used by citizens, whether in the service of driving greater accountability or civic utility.

A note on disclosure

Questions have been raised by author Evgeny Morozov about whether I should be on this panel or not, given that I write about open government. (He indicated on Twitter that he thinks that I should not be.) I asked several professors and editors prior to accepting the offer if they saw an issue with joining, prior to accepting the offer. All replied I could do so if I was open about my involvement and disclosed it. The Canadian government itself subsequently made that disclosure, along with my social publications on February 28th. I have been waiting for them to publish a more detailed, full record of the open government panel discussion, to no avail. (The above recommendations constitute publication of my notes made prior and during to the meeting but should not be viewed a transcript. An extremeley general, high level summary can be found at open.gc.ca.)

To date, in that context, my sole involvement has been to give feedback on Canada’s open government plan, listed above, over a teleconference screen. I have also talked with David Eaves, who also sits on the advisory panel (see his post on his involvement for more information).

When I was in Brazil last month for the Open Government Partnership conference, I did attend a dinner at the Canadian embassy that included Clement and the Canadian delegation, along with Eaves. While I was there, I talked with Canada’s deputy CIO about how I personally used social media and derived value from it, along with how I had observed large institutions accumulate and retrieve knowledge internally using collaboration software. I also talked with attendees about hockey, Brazil, dinner itself, and Eaves’ experience being a father of a newborn baby. I do not know if open government or open data were the subject of subsequent conversation with the Clement, ambassador or their staff: I left after dessert.

If you have strong opinions about my involvement, as described above or elsewhere, please ring in in the comments or contact me directly at alex@oreilly.com.

Taking stock of global freedom of expression on World Press Freedom Day

In 2010, only 1 in 6 people lives in countries with a free press, according to a new report on press freedom from Freedom House. There is a long road ahead to establishing and protecting freedom of expression for humanity.

This week, defenders of free expression are celebrating the progress of press freedom and recognizing the challenges that persist globally on World Press Freedom Day 2011. This is the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration that helped to establish UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day. The United States is hosting this year’s World Press Freedom Day in Washington, D.C. at the Newseum. You can watch the livestream below and follow the conversation on Twitter on the #wpfd hashtag, both of which are embedded below.

wpfd2011 on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free


To learn more about global freedom of expression and and the organizations that protect journalists and support the collection and dissemination of news about our world, visit:

ProPublica: Understanding the budget standoff and government shutdown [CHEATSHEET]

This ProPublica story by Marian Wang (@mariancw) is syndicated under a Creative Commons license. If you found it useful, make sure to follow @ProPublica on Twitter and do what ever else you can to support their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting. For more on this story, the Sunlight Foundation has also provided a helpful guide to the possible results of a government shutdown. -Editor.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congress has two days to reach a budget deal to fund the government for the rest of the year or else come Saturday, the federal government will go into a partial shutdown.

But what’s the budget standoff all about and what would a shutdown really entail? Here’s our attempt to explain the basics:

Basics behind the budget standoff

The GOP and the Obama administration are currently locked in a standoff over a difference of $7 billion to $30 billion – miniscule amount of the total $3.5 trillion budget. (OMB Watch, an open government group, has a thorough account [1] of the budget battles that led up to this point.)

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has a simple summary [2] of the GOP’s budget proposal, put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Tuesday: It lowers corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, extends the Bush tax cuts permanently, calls for repeal of both the health care law and Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and freezes discretionary spending at 2008 levels.

The Obama administration has offered to cut $33 billion from current spending levels but hasn’t given many specifics about what those cuts would entail

Political calculations

The negotiations have been a bit complicated for a few reasons. The first is that it’s not always clear what the two sides are using as the baseline [3] for cuts — whether it’s current operating levels or Obama’s proposed budget for 2011 (which never passed). Both parties have at times used the 2011 budget proposal as a baseline, making the cuts sound more impressive.

Another reason it’s been hard to nail down numbers is that Republicans haven’t always been on the same page.  The Tea Party-supported GOP freshmen, who aren’t at the negotiating table, have stuck to a hard line on the budget. House Speaker John Boehner, who is at the negotiating table, says there’s “no daylight between the tea party and me.”

But it’s clear that in the run-up to the November elections, the GOP pledged $100 billion in cuts, and when the House in February proposed [4] a list of somewhat scaled back spending cuts closer to the Obama administration2019s current offer, House leaders got grief from some GOP freshmen [5] and pledged the next day to cut a full $100 billion. (That’s using [6] President Obama’s never-enacted 2011 budget as a baseline, so it translates to about $61 billion in cuts from current levels.)

Boehner, moreover, pledged not to stop at $100 billion [7], according to Time magazine: “We’re not going to stop there,” he said at CPAC. “Once we cut the discretionary accounts, then we’ll get into the mandatory spending. And then you’ll see more cuts.”

But this week, he reportedly told President Obama that he could probably agree to about $40 billion in cuts [8] (using current levels at the baseline). That’s still $7 billion more than the administration has offered to cut. Democrats have complained that the GOP keeps shifting its goalposts [9] for compromise.

How a shutdown works

At agencies whose budgets are subject to Congressional appropriations, workers are put in two groups: essential or non-essential.

Essential workers keep working though they won’t get paid until funding is back again. Non-essential workers will be furloughed, so they won’t go to work until the funding issues are resolved, and they won’t get paid for days missed unless Congress specifically says so.

Which federal workers will be affected?

The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday night posted some guidance [10] on what would happen in the event of a shutdown. Workers find out from their agencies whether they’ll be furloughed until today or, at the latest, Friday.

The Washington Post has a piece on how frustrating this has been [11] for some workers. And the New York Times has noted that the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, has sued [12] the Office of Management and Budget to get more information on agencies’ contingency plans.

The president and members of Congress, who aren’t subject to furloughs, will still get paid though a bill to reverse that has passed the Senate but not the House [13].

Lessons from the last shutdown

At this point, most of the predictions about what will happen in a shutdown are based on what happened in previous shutdowns. And most of the information cited on this seems to have been taken from a Congressional Research Service report [14] released in February [PDF].

The report notes that from 1995 to 1996, two shutdowns occurred- one that lasted five days and furloughed 800,000 workers; another that lasted 21 days and furloughed 284,000 workers. That’s a lot of variation, and keep in mind that entirely new agencies [15] have been formed in the 15 years since the last shutdown.

Which government services would be affected?

The New York Times has a handy list laying out how various government services might be affected [16]. Some things that would continue mostly unaffected are military operations, the Federal Reserve, the postal service, and Medicare and Social Security payments. An accompanying story also outlines some potential scenarios [17] in more detail:

The National Zoo would close, but the lions and tigers would get fed; Yellowstone and other national parks would shut down. The Internal Revenue Service could stop issuing refund checks. Customs and Border Patrol agents training officials in Afghanistan might have to come home. And thousands of government-issued BlackBerrys would go silent.

2026 In any shutdown, the government does not completely cease functioning, of course. Activities that are essential to national security, like military operations, can continue. Air traffic control and other public safety functions are exempt from shutdowns. Federal prisons still operate; law enforcement and criminal investigations can continue.

The Times also has a piece on how state governments may be affected [18] by a federal shutdown. The answer: not too much if it’s a short shutdown, but a long one could present real problems.

Follow on Twitter: @mariancw [19]


Building a revolution in relevance in an age of information abundance

Revolutions rooms“We’ve had a decade’s worth of news in less than two months,” Mike Allen, chief White House correspondent for Politico. In the Saturday edition of Politico’s Playbook, Allen looked back at the Arab Spring and Japanese ongoing challenges:

It was Feb. 11 – seven weeks ago — that Mubarak fled the Arab spring, a rolling reordering of Middle East power that could wind up affecting global security as profoundly as 9/11.

It was March 11 – 15 days ago – that we woke to the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which will have ripple effects on the fragile global economy for months to come.

And, oh, we’re in three hot conflicts at once, for the first time since World War II.”

Related, in the NEW YORK TIMES: “Inundated With News, Many Find It Difficult to Keep Up on Libya

“People interviewed across four states said that at a time when the world seems to stagger from one breathtaking news event to another — rolling turmoil across the Middle East, economic troubles at home, disaster upon disaster in Japan — the airstrikes on military targets in Libya can feel like one crisis too many.”

Through it all, I’ve been following Andy Carvin (@acarvin), whose Twitter feed has been a groundbreaking curation of the virtual community and conversation about the Middle East, including images, video, breaking news and unverified reports.

To wax metaphorical, his account has become a stream of crisis data drawn from from the data exhaust created by the fog of war across the Middle East, dutifully curated by a veteran digital journalist for up to 17 hours a day.

Carvin has linked to reports, to video and images from the front lines that are amongst the most graphic images of war I have ever seen. While such imagery is categorically horrific to view, they can help to bear witness to what is happening on the ground in countries where state media would never broadcast their like.

The vast majority of the United States, however, is not tracking what’s happening on the ground in the region so closely. NEW YORK TIMES:  

“A survey by the Pew Research Center — conducted partly before and partly after the bombing raids on Libya began on March 19 — found that only 5 percent of respondents were following the events ‘very closely.’ Fifty-seven percent said they were closely following the news about Japan.”

Understanding the immensity of the challenges that face Japan, Egypt and Libya is pushing everyone’s capacity to stay informed with day to day updates, much less the larger questions of what the larger implications of these events all are for citizens, industry or government. In the context of the raw information available to the news consumer in 2011, that reality is both exciting and alarming. The tools for newsgathering and dissemination are more powerful and democratized than ever before. The open question now is how technologists and journalists will work together to improve them to provide that context that everyone needs.

Finally, an editor’s note: My deepest thanks to all of the brave and committed journalists working long hours, traveling far from their families and risking their lives under hostile regimes for the reporting that helps us make it so.

Building the narrative of Gov 2.0, one story at a time

What does Gov 2.0 look like?


[Image credit: "What does Gov 2.0 look like?"-Mark Drapeau]


Earlier this week, FutureGov Asia published a story arguing that there is no coherent narrative for Gov 2.0. To its authors, it must be said that, respectfully, there is a narrative out there, for those who are willing to search it out and reference it.

Readers can find the narrative of collaboratively reported in real-time on Twitter, described by the town criers of the digital landscape, and in the feeds of the O’Reily Radar, Govfresh, NextGov, OhMyGov, Govloop, techPresident, Federal News Radio’s Dorobek Insider, the pages of the “Next American City,” InformationWeek Government and FastCompany, Gov 2.0 Radio and the PBS NewsHour.

Perhaps the reason that the writer has heard what’s happening globally called both Gov 2.0 and open government is that there is a distinction between the two. That’s why defining Gov 2.0 and open government still has utility for some readers in 2011, despite the need to focus on outcomes, applicability to missions, economic relevance or citizen utility.

Gov 2.0 can be found in the bottom-up upswell in citizens communicating, sharing information, mapping, organizing, building autonomous Internet and demanding more accountable, participatory government, often through the use of disruptive technologies. Micah Sifry has thoughtfully characterized that upswell as “We government,” although he and Andrew Rasiej have noted structural differences between Gov 2.0 and “We government.”

Open government has traditionally been defined from the top down, where government acts a convenor, asking citizens to co-create government regulations, standards or even, someday, laws. It is a concept grounded in decades of philosophy and political theory, going back to the 18the Century Enlightenment and beyond. Open government is not technology dependent, although in the 21st Century, it’s clear that technology is a critical enabler for those conversations. For those who wish to follow the narrative from DC and track the progress of open government, White House officials like federal CIO Vivek Kundra, US CTO Chopra, or recently departed deputy CTO Beth Noveck have been working towards at the highest levels in the United States. Samantha Power has spoken eloquently about the relationship of open government, transparency and national security.

Open data is not, however, as the author of the Future Gov article suggests, a “branch movement” for either Gov 2.0 or open government at all: it’s a core component of building powerful government platforms for innovation, on the order of weather data, GPS or the Internet itself. Watch for how health data provisions new businesses in that evolution.

In many cases, news, technologies, advances or human stories won’t be called Gov 2.0, although people within the movement recognize it as such. These stories will matter to average citizens in ways that go to many of the core issues of our time, including food safety, product recalls, disaster response, healthcare costs and financial fraud. The innovation of GPS or weather data, after all, isn’t the launch of satellites or balloons. It’s that drivers find their way home and farmers can plan their crops. If healthcare apps continue to evolve, they’ll be able to make better decisions. New data-driven approaches like healthcare hotspotting might help to reduce costs, if replicated.

Look to the recent traceability rule from the new food safety law, which will lead to uses of data that will provide consumers with more information. Consider the launch of the new public complaint database at SaferProducts.gov. Watch how technology is used to stand up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

These narratives aren’t just about what’s happening in the United States. At all. There’s also a Gov 2.0 story in Australia, or in many parts of Europe. E-democracy in Brazil is a key trend for 2011. Open government in India is certain to be a fascinating story in 2011. The story at the states and cities is in some ways even more compelling, as Gov 2.0 goes local, given that that’s the level where citizens interact with government the most.

There is a sea change ongoing, akin to a deep tidal surge, borne upon new technology platforms and fueled by the passion of citizens, public servants civic developers who want to see better outcomes. This correspondent met many of its leaders, whether they’re CTOs, entrepreneurs, elected officials, developers or communicators. If Gov 2.0 is missing a coherent narrative, it won’t be for the lack of persistence by the many people who deeply care about building the smarter, leaner, more agile government that citizens both want and deserve.