Open Government Week in Review: White House update, eGov setbacks and global OGP potential

Friday’s White House open government “status update” capped a historic week for open government in Washington. The Blue Button movement now has a website: BlueButtonData.org. Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra challenged the energy industry to collaborate in the design of a “green button” modeled after that Blue Button. White House director of digital Macon Phillips answered questions about “We the People” and the White House e-petitions. The Department of Transportation held a public consultation for the its Digital Transportation Exchange (DTE) open government initiative. President Obama signed the America Invents Act into law.

Progress and Setbacks

Quiet successes have been matched with setbacks to open government in Washington over the past three years, including two from this past week. Several journalism organizations have protested the U.S. federal government taking down doctor discipline and malpractice data from the Web. The Obama administration also faces an uncertain future for funding for its Office of Management and Budget’s open government initiatives after theU.S. Senate appropriations committee shortchanged the Electronic Government Fund by some $10 million dollars this week.

Global Open Government Partnership

While neither of those stories are good data points for the state of open government at the federal level, they are both part of a much larger narrative where some 40 countries (including the founding 8 members) have reportedly now submitted letters of intent to join this unprecedented international open government partnership.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be in New York on the same day that President Obama introduces the U.S. National Plan for open government as part of its commitment to the Open Government Partnership As John Wonderlich observed at the Sunlight Foundation on Friday, preparing for the U.S. National Plan and then delivering upon whatever is contains will be a “complex, ongoing effort that takes dedicated effort and attention,” adding to the progress towards a more transparent, participatory, collaborative or innovative government made to date.

In 2011, some of the most dynamic changes may be found the state and local level in the United States. After next week, the eyes of many more people will be open to the broader sweep of a global movement towards transparency. The world can watch the live streaming coverage of the “Power of Open” at Google’s YouTube channel from 9-10:30 AM and from 1:30-4:30 PM. Event details are available at OpenGovPartnership.org”>, including agenda, participants, presentations and other materials. I’m looking forward to telling that story using Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and next Tuesday, where I’ll be liveblogging at the O’Reilly Radar all day. techPresident’s associate editor, Nick Judd, will be tweeting and liveblogging. Follow the #OGP hashtag for the real-time conversation about the Open Government Partnership:


How should whistleblowing work in the age of transparency?

Transparency movements have gone global. Open government, however, depends in part upon the ability of public servants and corporate insiders to blow the whistle on fraud, corruption or other conduct that is not in the interest of citizens or stakeholders. In the context of Wikileaks, the role of whistleblowing has taken on new meaning and scope in this age of transparency. Despite President Obama’s open government commitments, his administration has aggressively pursued whistleblowers over the past two and a half years.

It is in that context that the Advisory Committee on Transparency for the Transparency Caucus in the U.S. Congress hosted a public discussion on July 29, 2011 on the challenges federal whistleblowers face. Video of the hearing, provided courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation, is embedded below.

The panelists included:

  • Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy, Project on Government Oversight
  • Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel
  • Christian Sanchez, Border Patrol Agent, Customs & Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
  • Daniel Schuman, Moderator, Policy Counsel, the Sunlight Foundation
  • Micah Sifry, Co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum; author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency; Sunlight Foundation sr. technology advisor

People interested in government transparency will find it of considerable interest.

Even if the White House’s commitment to transparency is questioned, open government continues to grow globally, with new tools for transparency coming online every month.

Kicking off Transparency Camp 2011 with 3 words [#tcamp11]

Today in Washington, Transparency Camp is back in session. As with every unconference, each attendee introduced him or herself with three words that describes what they do, what they care about or what they work on. The frequency of those words is shown in the Transparency Camp 2011 wordle below.

Transparency Camp 2011 Wordle
Transparency Camp 2011 Wordle

You can follow the conversation on Twitter on the #tcamp11 hashtag:


Some sessions will be livestreamed at TransparencyCamp.com. Sessions will be updated on a new mobile website at m.tcamp.us. Check back for a report from Transparency Camp 2011 tomorrow.

John Wonderlich on the aspirations and limitations of open data initiatives

New abilities given to citizens and open government watchdogs through the lens of technology means sunlight can be applied to government transparency in powerful ways. This past weekend, John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, spoke about open data and transparency at the slashroots ./roots/DEV in Jamaica. His keynote is embedded below.

./roots/Dev Conference 2011 – Keynote Day 2 Pt 1/2 from slashroots on Vimeo.

Open government scrutinized before the House Oversight Committee

This morning, the Oversight Committee in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on the Obama administration’s open government efforts. The “Transparency Through Technology: Evaluating Federal Open-Government Initiatives hearing was streamed live online at oversight.house.gov.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked his Twitter followers before the hearing a simple question “Have you tried to get facts on how gov’t spends your $ on USASpending.gov?” He received no answers.

The oversight committee did, however, hear extensive testimony from government IT executives and open government watchdogs. As Representative Issa probes how agencies balance their books, such insight will be crucial, particularly with respect to improving accountability mechanism and data. Poor data has been a reoccurring theme in these assessments over the years. Whether the federal government can effectively and pervasively apply open data principles appears itself to be open question.

The first half of the hearing featured testimony from Dr. Danny Harris, chief information officer for the Department of Education, Chris Smith, chief information officer for the Department of Agriculture, Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

Alice Lipowicz of Federal Computer Week tweeted out a few data points from the hearing.

  • A Sunlight Foundation audit found that the USDA spent $12.7B on school lunches but only reported $250,000 on USASpending.gov
  • According to Brito, “half of 3000 datasets on Data.gov are on EPA toxic releases, with only 200 to 300 datasets are on fed gov activity.” Lipowicz also tweeted that Brito testified that federal agencies need outside auditors and “ought to report ‘earnings’ similar to private sector.”
  • USDA CIO Chris Smith said that the agency did not report school lunch payments below $25,000 to USASpending.gov; will report in FY2012

In her testimony before the House committee on clearspending, Miller reiterated the position of the Sunlight Foundation that the efforts of the administration to make government spending data open, accurate and available have been insufficient, particularly when the data is wrong.

The Sunlight Foundation has been excited about the new promises of data transparency, but sometimes the results are nowhere near the accuracy and completeness necessary for the data to be useful for the public.

Sunlight’s Clearspending analysis found that nearly $1.3 trillion of federal spending as reported on USASpending.gov was inaccurate. While there have been some improvements, little to no progress has been made to address the fundamental flaws in the data quality. Correcting the very complicated system of federal reporting for government spending is an enormous task. It has to be done because without it there is no hope for accountability.

Miller made several recommendations to the committee to improve the situation, including:

  • unique identifiers for government contracts and grants
  • publicly available hierarchical identifiers for recipients to follow interconnected entities
  • timely bulk access to all data.

Her remarks ultimately reflect the assessment that she made at last year’s Gov 2.0 Summit, where she made it clear that open government remains in beta. Our interview is below:

Tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive requires better data, more auditors and improved performance metrics. That said, this looks like the year when many of the projects at agencies will move forward towards implementation.

Last month, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet, and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems .Open source and open government have also come together to create OpenStack, an open cloud computing platform that’s a collaboration between NASA, Rackspace, Cisco and a growing group of partners.

It’s too early to judge the overall effort open government as ultimately a success or failure. That said, the administration clearly needs to do more. In 2011, the open question is whether “We the people” will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better.

Video of the hearing will be posted here when available. Testimony from today’s hearing is linked to PDFs below.

Dr. Danny Harris

Chris Smith

Jerry Brito

Ellen Miller

The Honorable Danny Werfel

Note: Video of the hearing was provided through the efforts of citizen archivist Carl Malamud at house.resource.org, the open government video website that he set up in collaboration with Speaker Boehner and Congressman Issa. While the open government efforts of the federal government have a long way to go, in this particular regard, a public-private collaboration is making the proceedings of the House Oversight committee available to the world online.

The Future is Mobile at Ignite NYC: Open Data, Open Government and Augmented Reality

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” —William Gibson.

“An exploration of cyberpunk fiction, technology, where we’re headed, the challenges we face, and the solutions we need”-Ignite NYC. I gave a (very) similar talk called Pattern Recognition and Spimewatch at Ignite D.C. later that week. For whatever reason, this version seems to have come off much better. Rack it up to the first time on a big stage; there were close to a thousand people present in NYC.

The creative graphic recording at Ignite NYC at Web 2.0 Expo was created during the talk by Nora Herting of ImageThink.

For a great Ignite talk with a related theme, check out In Coders We Trust, by Laurel Ruma.

Gov 2.0: Applying open data to open government

Earlier this summer, the Knight Foundation convened a panel of experts on open source and open government at the 2010 Future of News and Civic Media Conference at MIT to consider whether open data can be used to fuel positive social change. If you missed the event or video when it was first posted, it’s well worth your time.

From the Knight Blog:

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, Laurel Ruma, editor at O’Reilly Media, and Nick Grossman, director of Civic Works at OpenPlans, each gave a brief speech and answered topical questions. Although each speaker expressed different ideas about how to foster civic engagement and social change, their strategies all revolved around a similar theme: transparency. The speakers agreed that social change can be fostered by increasing the amount of quality data available and correspondence between residents and their governments.

Miller will be presenting an Open Government Scorecard at the Gov 2.0 Summit next week. It’s a good bet that John Wonderlich’s post on the White House leading practice winners might serve as a preview of her comments.