The Empire (State) Strikes Back (Against Corruption)

This week, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched NYOpenGovernment.com, a new website that his office touts as a means for “voters, the media and government watchdogs hold state government accountable” by providing the public online access to government data on campaign contributions, lobbying, and state contracts.

“Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence,” Attorney General Schneiderman said, in a prepared statement. “New York Open Government will help the public keep an eye on what their government is doing in order to deter corruption and increase confidence in the public sector. This site is a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers demanding up-to-date and comprehensive information about their government.”

The launch of the new site fulfills a commitment that Schneiderman made as a candidate for Attorney General. NYOpenGovernment.com is an expansion of Project Sunlight, which went online in 2007 under then NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The citizens of New York could use a boost to confidence about their state government. According to a release from the NY AG’s office, at least 20 current or former elected members of the legislative and executive branches of the New York State government were either accused or convicted of crimes per the last decade.

“It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about this launch,” said Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, when asked for comment. “NYOpenGovernment.com demonstrates a genuine commitment to public oversight that more states should seek to emulate. Without the online release of information about campaign contributions, lobbying, state contracts, and other “influence data”, no government can really claim to be fulfilling its promise to be open or to provide open data.”

The data on the new website is sourced directly from the relevant state agencies. Campaign finance data come from the Board of Elections, lobbyist data from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, state contract data from the Comptroller’s office, state corporation data from the Department of State, and bill information from the legislature. According to the attorney general’s office, the AG receives raw data, in different formats, from the agencies when they update their own respective websites.

“What’s worth noting about New York’s new platform is that it not only releases this important accountability data, it also provides contextualization for it, allowing citizens to access the info through centralized searches,” said McCann. In fact, this is the primary approach behind sites like Ethics.gov, or Sunlight’s Influence Explorer.com and one that we consider a best practice.”

It’s also worth noting that the site’s Web design is clean, uncluttered and loads quickly on a mobile device, if not in a mobile-optimized version.

If media and citizens have requests for data or questions about quality or accuracy, the AG’s office established a primary point of contact: Jason Ortiz, the director of special projects, and provided an official phone number (212-416-8743) and email address: Jason.Ortiz@ag.ny.gov.

The introduction of site was parsed by numerous members of New York’s good government community:

“With New York Open Government, Attorney General Schneiderman is showing clear leadership in making to government more transparent and accountable,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, in a prepared statement. “By updating New York Open Government online tools and features A.G. Schneiderman is demonstrating that in the 21st century, the public’s access to information regarding how their government officials act must be easily searchable and accessible online.”

“We’re excited by Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website,” said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, in a prepared statement. “We applaud the attorney general’s efforts to harness the immense power of the internet to increase government transparency and accountability. We look forward to working with A.G. Schneiderman to help New York Open Government achieve its full potential as a potent tool for restoring trust and confidence in our state government.”

“New York Open Government is an important resource for New Yorkers who want to know how their government works,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY, in a prepared statement. “We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for helping to bring New York’s information services into the 21st century, and significantly improving access to publicly available data. Government transparency is essential to an engaged electorate.”

“In the information age, New Yorkers want and expect access to the hard data that shows what their government is up to,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for NYPIRG. “Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website provides a ‘one-stop shopping’ place for average New Yorkers as well as sophisticated researchers to find information about elected officials and those seeking to influence them. The features will make it easier to access, organize and ultimately make sense of information as never before. This is an important resource for New Yorkers trying to keep tabs on government.”

What’s next?

There’s an additional bright spot here, with respect to cost to taxpayers: no expensive contract to a systems integrator was involved. The office of the Attorney General built the site in house, with no consultants. According to the NY attorney general’s office, hat they’re committed to sustaining and enhancing the site, including adding more datasets, improved search and a trackers for the most viewed data.

If, in the future, it may be possible for citizens to share information about government programs, practices or officials into the their social networks, it will a step ahead for networked accountability. “We’ve seen the power of social media for democracy movements around the world,” said NY Attorney General Schneiderman, in a prepared statement. “By making this tool compatible with multiple media platforms, we hope to empower our own citizens to hold their government accountable.”

The AG’s office looks at the website like an example of “living, breathing and evolving public accountability,” and emphasized that they will listen to its users and implement their suggestions “when it makes sense” to do so.

Here’s one suggestion, from this native of upstate New York: set up a data.nyopengovernment.com so that citizens, media, developers, advocates and state employees can see, browse and download the data in bulk. Currently, a user can search for an individual and then view all the relevant records, as for Mario Cuomo, with the capacity to download the data as a .CSV, Excel file or XML.

While New York should and is being lauded for this step forward to make open government data available in open, structured form only, its public officers could help to enable an ecosystem of networked accountability through enabling the creation of Web services, not just new websites. The next evolution in open government is not to encourage citizens to visit a website but to release the data that site is built upon so that it finds them, when they use search engines, social networks, media websites or civic applications like OpenStates.

As NYC.gov buckles, city government pivots to the Internet to share Hurricane #Irene resources

Tens of millions of citizens in the United States are watching as Hurricane Irene churns up the East Coast. If you’re in the path of the immense storm, today is a critical day to prepare. Visit Ready.gov for relevant resources. Unfortunately for citizens in my home state, New York City is right in the path of Hurricane Irene. As many New Yorkers look for information online, however, we’re watching NYC.gov is buckling under demand. For part of Friday morning, NYC.gov would not resolve. The outage is providing a real-time experiment in how a megalopolis with millions of citizens provides information during a natural disaster.

As the Village Voice reported, NYC is evacuating the most vulnerable and putting out advisories but city websites are down. As a result, we’re watching how city government is forced to pivot to the Internet and commercial websites, including social media, to get information out.

Dropbox is hosting a Hurricane #Irene Evacuation PDF (It’s not completely clear if city government uploaded the PDF or not, when this post was published). NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne and the official NYC.gov Twitter account have acknowledged and apologized for the outage and pointed citizens to docstoc.com for the official evacuation map:

NYC Hurricane Evacuation Map

Notably, Mayor Bloomberg’s staff has uploaded the New York City Hurricane Evacuation Zones PDF to his personal website, MikeBloomberg.com, and tweeted it out. We’re in unexplored territory here, in terms of a mayor sharing information this way, but in the context of incoming weather, it’s hard to fault the move, though it’s likely inevitable.. [Ed: As Nick Clark Judd pointed out in his excellent post on how governments are scrambling to deliver information to citizens looking for hurricane information online, Mayor Bloomberg has posted press releases and other information to his website several times before.]

What is clear, amidst growing concerns of a multi-billion dollar disaster, is that the New York City government’s website hosting strategy needs to be revisited. According to Provide Security, NYC servers are hosted in a data center in Brooklyn. Spikes in demand are precisely what cloud computing offers to the private sector and, increasingly, to federal government. As hurricane clouds gather, it’s probably past time for New York government to get familiar into cloudbursting or move quickly implementing internal architectures that include a private cloud, through Nebula or something similar, to handle the load. In the context of disasters, surge capacity for government websites is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a must-have.

UPDATE: Civic technologist Philip Ashlock is mirroring NYC Irene data & links on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Even though NYC didn’t move critical resources to the cloud itself, a member of New York City’s technology community stepped up to help the city and citizens in a crisis. That’s Gov 2.0 in action:

Maps

NYC.gov Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder
OASIS Map (more info)
ArcGIS Map
hurricane_map_english.pdf 

Raw Data

googleearth_hurricane_zone.kmz 
Shapefiles: OEM_HurricaneEvacCenters_001.zip
Shapefiles: OEM_HurricaneEvacZones_001.zip

Hurricane resources from the Feds

The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Irene at Hurricanes.gov and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels. A curated list from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMA) is embedded below:

If you use Twitter, a key follow this weekend is FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who tweets at @CraigAtFEMA. This morning, Fugate tweeted out a link to new digital tools, including a FEMA Android app and text shortcodes. If you’re at risk, this information is for you. Shayne Adamski, senior manager for digital engagement, blogged the details:

In the new FEMA App, you’ll be able to:

  • Check off the items you have in your family’s emergency kit,
  • Enter your family emergency meeting locations,
  • Review safety tips on what to do before, during and after a disaster,
  • View a map of shelters and disaster recovery centers across the U.S., and
  • Read our latest blog posts.

When we built the app, we kept the disaster survivor in mind, making sure much of the information would be available even if cell phone service isn’t, so you’ll be able to access the important information on how to safe after a disaster, as well as your family emergency meeting locations.

So as Administrator Fugate said, you can download our app today in the Android market, and look for FEMA App for Blackberry version 6 devices and iPhones in the coming weeks.

FEMA Text Messages 

A new and separate service from the new app, our text message updates will allow cell phone users to receive text message updates from FEMA.

  • Text PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA) to sign up to receive monthly disaster safety tips
  • Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
    (For availability of shelters and services, contact your local emergency management agency.)
  • Text DRC + your ZIP code to 44362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest disaster recovery center in your area (for example, if you lived in Annandale, Virginia with a Zip Code of 22003, you’d text DRC 22003).

We’re excited to provide these two new ways you can access information on your mobile device, in addition to our already existing mobile site – m.fema.gov. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook and Twitter channels as we roll out our app to the remaining smartphone operating systems and make enhancements to our text messages program.

So download the app or text PREPARE to 44362, and then leave us a comment and let us know what you think. We encourage you to tell a family member, friend, or neighbor as well, so they can have disaster safety information always at their fingertips.

[Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory]

A movement to spur innovation and participation in government

This past weekend, Syracuse MPA grad student Pat Fiorenza spoke about Gov 2.0 at the We Live NY Conference in upstate New York. In a wrap up posted after the conference, Fiorenza touched of what people think about when they hear “Gov 2.0,” including:

Fiorenza’s recap of his Gov 2.0 presentation also describes both why the idea is important to him and why it’s important to people who aren’t developers.

“Gov 2.0 extends beyond a great programmer – I’ve noticed that when I talk to some people about Gov 2.0 they immediately associate me as a geeky-computer programming-MPA student (only 2 of the 3!). I’ve developed a passion for Gov 2.0 because it holds so much potential for government. It’s about getting access to data and information immediately, improving constituent services, crowd sourcing information, and empowering citizens. Gov 2.0 requires someone to identify an existing problem and conceptualize a solution – then someone to run with the idea and develop the program, with a lot of collaboration in between.”

Fiorenza also pointed the way to Remy DeCausemaker (@remy_d, a “resident hacktivist and storyteller” at the Rochester Institute for Technology’s Lab for Technological Literacy, who also presented on Gov 2.0 at the conference.

DeCausemaker works on FOSS at RIT and CIVX, an open source public information system for raw data. His presentation (PDF) on open government and open data will be of interest to many people in the Gov 2.0 community.