Research

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.

Disaster 2.0: UN OCHA releases report on future of information sharing in crisis

The emergence of crisiscamps and subsequent maturation of CrisisCommons into a platform for civic engagement were important developments in 2010. Hearing digital cries for help has never been more important. A year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a new report by a team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative analyzes how the humanitarian, emerging volunteer and technical communities collaborated in the aftermath of the quake. The report recommends ways to improve coordination between these groups in future emergencies. There are 5 specific recommendations to address the considerable challenges inherent in coordinating crisis response:

  1. A neutral forum to surface areas of conflict or agreement between the volunteer/technical community and established humanitarian institutions
  2. An space for innovation where new tools and approaches can be experimented with before a crisis hits
  3. A deployable field team with the mandate to use the best practices and tools established by the community
  4. A research and development group to evaluate the effectiveness of tools and practices
  5. An operational interface that identifies procedures for collaboration before and during crises, including data standards for communication

Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies” was commissioned by the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership in collaboration with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). You can find more discussion of the report in a series of posts on disaster relief 2.0 at UNDispatch.com, like this observation from Jen Ziemke:

…a substantial majority of members on the Crisis Mappers Network have held positions in formal disaster response, some for several decades. Volunteers in groups like the Standby Task Force include seasoned practitioners with the UNDP or UN Global Pulse. But what is really needed is a fundamental rethinking of who constitutes the “we” of disaster response, as well as dispensing with current conceptions of: “volunteers”, “crowds,” and “experts.” While distinctions can be endlessly debated, as humans, we are far more the same than we are different.

Whether it’s leveraging social media in a time of need or geospatial mapping, technology empowers us to help one another more than ever. This report offers needed insight about how to do it better.

Beth Noveck on connecting the academy to open government R&D

Earlier this week, the White House convened an open government research and development summit at the National Archives. Columbia statistics professor Victoria Stodden captures some key themes from it at her blog, including smart disclosure of government data and open government at the VA. Stodden also documented the framing questions that federal CTO Aneesh Chopra asked for help answered from the academic community:

1. big data: how strengthen capacity to understand massive data?
2. new products: what constitutes high value data?
3. open platforms: what are the policy implications of enabling 3rd party apps?
4. international collaboration: what models translate to strengthen democracy internationally?
5. digital norms: what works and what doesn’t work in public engagement?

In the video below, former White House deputy CTO for open government, Beth Noveck, reflected on what the outcomes and results from the open government R&D summit at the end of the second day. If you’re interested in a report from one of the organizers, you’d be hard pressed to do any better.

The end of the beginning for open government?

The open government R&D summit has since come under criticism from one of its attendees, Expert Labs’ director of engagement Clay Johnson, for being formulaic, “self congratulatory” and not tackling the hard problems that face the country. He challenged the community to do better:

These events need to solicit public feedback from communities and organizations and we need to start telling the stories of Citizen X asked for Y to happen, we thought about it, produced it and the outcome was Z. This isn’t to say that these events aren’t helpful. It’s good to get the open government crowd together in the same room every once and awhile. But knowing the talents and brilliant minds in the room, and the energy that’s been put behind the Open Government Directive, I know we’re not tackling the problems that we could.

Noveck responded to his critique in a comment where she observed that “Hackathons don’t substitute for inviting researchers — who have never been addressed — to start studying what’s working and what’s not in order to free up people like you (and I hope me, too) to innovate and try great new experiments and to inform our work. But it’s not enough to have just the academics without the practitioners and vice versa.”

Justin Grimes, a Ph.D student who has been engaged in research in this space, was reflective after reading Johnson’s critique. “In the past few years, I’ve seen far more open gov events geared towards citizens, [developers], & industry than toward academics,” he tweeted. “Open gov is a new topic in academia; few people even know it’s out there; lot of potential there but we need more outreach. [The] purpose was to get more academics involved in conversation. Basically, government saying ‘Hey, look at our problems. Do research. Help us.’”

Johnson spoke with me earlier this year about what else he sees as the key trends of Gov 2.0 and open government, including transparency as infrastructure, smarter citizenship and better platforms. Given the focus he has put on doing, vs researching or, say, “blogging about it,” it will be interesting to see what comes out of Johnson and Expert Labs next.

Pew: More than half of US adults went online to get election news in 2010

The Pew Internet and Life Project released new research today on the Internet and Campaign 2010 that 73% of adult internet users went online to get news, information or otherwise be involved in last year’s elections. That represents some 54% of all US adults, or a majority of the population, now are turning to the Internet when election season comes around. Expect that to grow further in the presidential season next year.

“As the Internet has developed as a tool for political engagement and information-seeking, the audience for online political content has also changed,” said Aaron Smith, Pew Internet senior research specialist in a prepared statement. Smith authored the report. “These online spaces are a meeting place where politically engaged Americans of all stripes—young and old, conservative and liberal—can come to catch up on the latest events, share their thoughts on the political news of the day, and see what their friends have to say about the issues that are important to them.”

Online

Mainstream media websites occupy the top 5 spots in the list of the main sources of news cited by respondents, next to Yahoo and Google. Only 2% of those surveyed said that they visited a candidate’s website, setting a low bar for that number to explode in the 2012 cycle as both incumbents and those wishing to oust them turn to the Web to “go direct” to citizens.

For some, where they’re visiting is a little less clear. 29% of those surveyed chose “other” for their main sources of news, which could mean any number of sources in the blogosphere or the rest of the Internet.

Chart: Pew_Internet and Campaign 2010_Source

Source: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, November 3-24, 2010 Post-Election Tracking Survey. n=2,257 national adults ages 18 and older, including 755 cell phone interviews. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Note: totals may exceed 100% due to multiple responses. This chart is based on data from “22% of online Americans used social networking or Twitter for politics in 2010 campaign,” a report on politics and social media by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. This report is available in full on our website at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/The-Internet-and-Campaign-2010.aspx. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. For more information about the Project, please visit http://pewinternet.org/About-Us.aspx.
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Social

Social networking is an increasingly important factor in American consumption of political news. According to eMarketer, in 2011 half of all US Internet users log in monthly to Facebook.

There are now well over than tens of million American Twitter users, though a small percentage of those users account for the bulk of the tweets. According to Pew, one in five online adults (22%) used Twitter or a social networking site for political purposes in 2010. Twitter has some 200 million users worldwide, approximately 60 million of them of which are in the United States.

Video

With more broadband access, Internet-connected flatscreen televisions, set-top boxes and an explosion of video-capable smartphones and tablets, people are also watching in more places, spaces and times than ever before. Timeshifting stopped being a science fiction phenomenon years ago with the introduction of digital video recorders, familiar now as “DVRs”, but on-demand video from Apple, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix and a host of other sites are available to those able to pay the toll for broadband Internet access.

Chart: Pew_Internet and Campaign 2010_Online Video

Source: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, November 3-24, 2010 Post-Election Tracking Survey. n=2,257 adult internet users ages 18 and older, including 755 cell phone interviews; interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. n=1,628 based on internet users. This chart is based on data from “22% of online Americans used social networking or Twitter for politics in 2010 campaign,” a report on politics and social media by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. This report is available in full on our website at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/The-Internet-and-Campaign-2010.aspx. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. For more information about the Project, please visit http://pewinternet.org/About-Us.aspx.
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Polarized?

According to the report, some “55% of all internet users feel that the internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, compared with 30% who say that the internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views by giving ordinary citizens a chance to be heard.”

Is the Internet polarizing? Micah Sifry of techPresident wasn’t so sure.

This could be true, or it could be a false positive. What if people are conflating things? Arguably politics in America is more polarized, but cable TV and talk radio and paid negative political advertising are driving that shift, while the Internet is just an overall disruptive force that is enabling lots of more people to speak up and connect with the like-minded and unlike-minded alike.

Groups

Polarization can express itself in how people group online and offline. As with so many activities online, political information gathering online requires news consumers to be more digitally literate.

In 2011, that may mean recognizing the potential for digital echo chambers, where unaware citizens become trapped in a filter bubble created by rapidly increasing personalization in search, commercial and social utilities like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Pew’s research found that some of the people surveyed at least recognized the complexity of the political landscape online. With a few clicks of the mouse, keystrokes or finger taps, a news consumer can find the best and worst of humanity is mirrored online. The open platform of the Internet allows extremist views to co-exists alongside moderate perspectives. It also provides means for like-minded citizens to find one another, using the Internet as a platform for collective action.

Chart: Pew Internet_Internet and Campaign 2010_Point of View

Source: The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, November 3-24, 2010 Post-Election Tracking Survey. N=2,257 adult internet users ages 18 and older, including 755 cell phone interviews; Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. n=1,167 based on online political users. This chart is based on data from “22% of online Americans used social networking or Twitter for politics in 2010 campaign,” a report on politics and social media by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. This report is available in full on our website at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/The-Internet-and-Campaign-2010.aspx. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. For more information about the Project, please visit http://pewinternet.org/About-Us.aspx.
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While the diversity of sources may have radically expanded and the delivery systems for them may have multiplied, finding and establishing the truth of what’s out there can be be challenging.

Caveat lector.

You can download the full report as a PDF here. For digital politicos, it’s a must read.

New recommendations for improving local open government and creating online hubs

Today, the Aspen Institute hosted a roundtable on government transparency and online hubs in Washington, DC. You can watch the archived webcast below.

The roundtable focused on the release of two new white papers. The first, “Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action,” by Adam Thierer, discusses scenarios where community leaders, citizens, media, technologists and — critically, local government — can work together” to create local online hubs where citizens can access information about their governments and local communities.” Creating such high-quality online information hubs was one of the 15 key recommendations of Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. “Just as communities depend on maps of physical space, they should create maps of information flow that enable members of the public to connect to the data and information they want,” said the Knight Commission. (Download PDF or Read Online)

“Governments need to get more information out and make it more accessible, said Thierer today. “This shouldn’t be controversial.” Thierer said that government can do well to catalyze and support this development simply by doing a better job of making such information easily available in easy to use formats. While open government data stores have grown, Thierer noted that this has not trickled down. He cited the example of Manor, Texas as one example of where one local champion (former CIO Dustin Haisler) got help from Stanford and other external resources to get the local open data repository online.

Broadly, Thierer described three models for online hubs:

  • Hubs focused on community government information. Example: Texas Tribune
  • Community connections: local forums and community email listservs. Example: e-democracy.org
  • Community news and commentary. Example: Universal Hub

Thierer focused on the important role that libraries and local or state universities can play in this new ecosystem, by connected offline and online worlds. These universities could create “code toolboxes” that local communities can use, as Stanford did for Manor. He hoped that that model could be replicated nationally.

Government transparency

Download PDF or Read Online)

There are three basic issues here, according to Turner-Lee:

  • Do people get it?
  • Do they have the resources they need?
  • Can they do transparency with those resources?

“All of us who have been in this debate have seen a conflict between these three factors, said Turner-Lee. The question, she said Turner-Lee, is how we empower state and local government. The challenge is that in most open data effort, “We are still in a one-way world, where data is pushed down to the public, not in a reciprocal ecosystem.”

It’s one thing to say citizens who should be involved, said Turner-Lee, but more needs to be done. “As an organizer, I can speak to that. It’s hard to get people to a block meeting,” much less meeting online, she said. There’s also a persistent issue of the digital divide that has to be addressed in this context. “We cannot proclaim government transparency” where millions of people don’t have online access, said Turner-Lee.

There are many examples of where open data is being put to use on the behalf of citizens now. Turner cited apps driven by transit data in Chicago, heritage trees in Portland or the use of 311 by SeeClickFix in the District of Columbia.

Jon Grant focused on a major pain point for government at all levels for tapping into the innovation economy: procurement issues, which civic entrepreneurs run into in cities, statehouses and Washington. “It is time to look at these procurement rules more closely,” he said, and promote higher levels of innovation. “There are a lot of ideas are happening but a lot of rules restrict vendors from interacting in government,” said Grant. Turner-Lee observed that traditional procurement laws may also not be flexible enough to bring more mobile apps into government.

Fundamentally, empowering more government transparency through the Internet will require both creating a climate for the actions, said Turner-Lee, but also through structural changes, specifically, through the release of spectrum and Universal Service Fund (USF) reform.

It will also require that state and local government officials are part of the conversation, “It they aren’t at the table, we’re going to be pretty much talking to ourselves,” said Turner-Lee.

Former San Francisco CIO Chris Vein, now the new White House deputy CTO for government innovation, agreed. biggest challenge of all is that we like to think there are templates. to a certain extent, they can be. fundamentally, all politics is local. To make this work in government, a community “needs someone who takes risks, who goes out there and makes it happen regardlesss of the cost.”

All stakeholder at the panel acknowledged the crucial importance of community institutions, nonprofits and libraries in addressing issues of the digital divide and creating a bridge between online hubs and local citizens. Turner Lee noted that billions of people over the course of years have come into libraries for assistance, particularly the homeless and low-income citizens. “What better way to get people into the system by enabling libraries to be a conduit of information?” she asked.

“Public information belongs to the public, and the public’s business should be done in public,” said Turner. That said, local citizens also don’t want data for the sake of data. “Consumption of this data would be inconsistent if the data doesn’t provide quality of life,” she said.

Knight Commission to release recommendations on open government and online hubs

Tomorrow, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will release two new white papers that focus on implementing the recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

The two new white papers—“Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government” by Jon Gant and Nicol Turner-Lee, and “Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action” by Adam Thierer, recommend steps that government and community leaders should take to increase government transparency and put more information hubs online.

To Aspen Institute will convene a roundtable of public officials, advocates, and watchdogs from national, state and local levels of government (along with this correspondent) tomorrow morning from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. EST. See the list of attendees below for specific details.

There will be a live webcast of the event. The Knight Commission is encouraging people to participate online at #knightcomm hashtag. According to the event organizers, a livestream will begin at 9:00 a.m. (EST) and will be archived. These white papers will be available to read and download Friday morning. Look for links here when they become available.


Featured Roundtable Speakers

Dr. Jon Gant, Fellow, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a leading scholar in the field of information systems and public administration.

Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. She has produced path breaking research on broadband adoption among minority and disadvantaged populations and engages city, state and federal legislators on issues in telecommunications, open government and the emerging technology innovation sectors.

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow, Technology Policy Program, Mercatus Center at George Mason University, having previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation. His work spans technology, media, and Internet and free speech with a focus in online child safety and digital privacy policy issues.

Roundtable participants include:

Gary Bass, Executive Director, OMB Watch
Ben Berkowitz, Founder, SeeClickFix
John Bracken, Directory of Digital Media, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Jerry Brito, Senior Research Fellow, George Mason University
Kevin Curry, Co-Founder, CityCamp.com
Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Charlie Firestone, Executive Director, Communications and Society Program, Aspen Institute
Feather Houstoun, President, William Penn Foundation
Alexander Howarder, Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent, O’Reilly Media
William Kellibrew, IV, Deputy Director, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Alex Kreilein, Legislative Assistant, Office of Congresswoman Jane Harman
Ngoan Le, Vice President of Programs, The Chicago Community Trust
Blair Levin, Communications and Society Fellow, Aspen Institute
Philip Neustrom, Founder, Davis Wiki
Steve Pearson, Publisher and Chief Technologist, Project Virginia
Lee Rainie, Director, PEW Internet and American Life Project
Rachel Sterne, Chief Digital Officer, Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment, New York City
Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel, Sunlight Foundation
Nancy Tate, Executive Director, League of Women Voters
Tracy Viselli, Community Manager, ACTion Alexandria
Marijke Visser, Assistant Director, OITP, American Library Association
Eric Wenger, Policy Counsel, US-Legal-Government Affairs, Microsoft Corporation
Harry Wingo, Senior Policy Counsel, Google, Inc.

Fuel for debate at the State of the Net: The Social Side of the Internet

Social Network by Luc Legay

My Social Network by Luc Legay

A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and Life Project sheds new light on the social side of the Internet.The results offer new insight into the differences between the connected and the disconnected.

The survey found that:

  • 75% of all American adults are active in some kind of voluntary group or organization and internet users are more likely than others to be active
  • 80% of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-internet users. Moreover, social media users are even more likely to be active
  • 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.

For stats junkies, the full report offers many more numbers on how people organize, find groups and use the Internet to participate. Or not, as the case may be. The disconnected are not, by definition, participants in virtual civic discourse or affinity groups. There are many shades to the digital divide. “It is important to note that 25% of American adults are not active in any of the groups we addressed,” wrote Aaron Smith, senior research specialist at Pew Internet and co-author of the report. “They often report they are time-stressed or have health or other issues that limit their ability to be involved. And about a fifth of them say that lack of access to the internet is a hindrance. Even in its absence, the internet seems to be a factor in the reality of how groups perform in the digital age.”

The results of the survey will provide grist for the mill, so to speak, at a panel discussion at the State of the Net conference tomorrow, where this correspondent will join Jerry Berman, Andrew Keen, Lee Rainie and Clay Shirky to talk about social media and the role of the Internet on civic life. If you have questions or comments, please share them in the comments. (And for those in NYC, keep on eye out for the new Meetup.)