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.

Utah.gov 2.0: personalized, search-centric design, real-time content

Today, the citizens of Utah have one of the best state government websites online – or at least the newest and easily one of the most beautiful. Whether they notice the change or not, Utah.gov relaunched with a major redesign this morning.

The new site is organized around search, with a big search field front and center. Search now indexes agency information, office hours, interactive maps, and related forms. Utah.gov also uses personalization by location and integration of new media from state officials and agencies. And, in a nod to the Web 2.0 world, Utah.gov will show “what’s trending” as more citizens uses the site. Visitors can already see the most popular searches.

“We are thrilled to announce the re-design of Utah.Gov. Utahns are tech savvy and they expect their government to be the same,” said Utah Governor Gary Herbert in a prepared statement. “Economic development in the State has been a top priority and the new design focuses on utilizing the most innovative technology to better serve Utah citizens and business 24/7.”

For a quick introduction to the new Utah.gov, check out this introductory video:

 

UTG2011 from Utah Interactive on Vimeo.

“Utah’s new site introduces a new dimension in government web design,” tweeted state CIO David Fletcher a few hours before launch. He gave the new Utah.gov a warm reception over at his personal blog:

It’s been two years since the state of Utah did a major upgrade to its website and a lot has changed during that time. The internet continues to represent an enormous opportunity for state government. In just five short years, the number of visitors to the Utah.gov domain has doubled, reaching 1.4 million unique visitors in March 2011. The new site has been developed, based on extensive research, to address the most important needs of Utah citizens. It takes into account changes that have occurred in Utah society and with technology. We appreciate the fact that Utah.gov has come to represent a trusted source for all kinds of information.

Two years ago, social media services, such as Twitter and Facebook, were still new to many Utahns, so we provided aggregation services where citizens could discover new agency Twitter feeds and begin to interact. The new site, integrates collaborative features into more aspects of the site so you will find information from Twitter and Facebook, and videos from YouTube integrated into many of the pages of Utah.gov. We continue to use the internet to open up government and make it more accessible through services like Open.Utah.gov. There’s also lots of data available in a variety of formats at Data.Utah.gov. Of course, we try to be as open as possible while still maintaining the privacy of our individual citizens.
Still, the most important features on Utah.gov are the numerous services that save time and money for citizens, while bringing tremendous efficiencies to state government as well as the vast libraries of information on topics as varied as healthcare, transportation, caregivers, business creation, and hunting. In 2010, Utah citizens engaged the domain for over 25.1 million interactive transactions, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

Utah.gov was recognized as the best community resource in Utah in 2008 and has won many awards over the years. Looks like they’ll be in the running for more soon.

UPDATE: There are plenty of other folks commenting on the new Utah.gov. Luke Fretwell shared his review of the new Utah.gov here at Govfresh.

At Govloop, Andy Krzmarzick writes that Utah’s stunning web revitalization effort sets “a new bar not just for government web design, but for any location on the web.”

Reno.gov webmaster Kristy Fifelski’s video review for GovGirl.com includes a few concerns regarding YouTube and collecting user-submitted content:

 

Abhi Nemani called Utah.gov a beautiful new government website over at Code for America, focusing in on the importance of search:

A citizen coming to Utah.gov isn’t given a sprawling tree of links they have to cut their way through. It’s just a search box. It’s just that simple. As the state government put in its release, “search is unmistakable.” In Britain, some innovators within the government have too been experimenting with the interfaces for government websites; they too determined this search-centric model is ideal. Understandably so, I’d say, because it aligns with the motivations a user has in visiting a government website: namely, you have a question. You’re wondering what time that office is open till or where that other one is; which form do you need to fill out and how do you submit it. Government is just as much an information resource as a service provider. Smart web design, like we see on Utah.gov, helps it do both.

Bottom line: When it put search front and center, Utah.gov’s redesign reflected how citizens navigate online.

Britain seeks alpha

In the United States, government agencies like the FCC have launched open government websites in beta. In the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom is rolling back one more version and seeking alpha.

Alpha.gov 404 error page

Alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype of a new, single website for government in the United Kingdom that the Government Digital Service developed over the course of three months, working from the recommendations of Martha Lane-Fox’s Review. That service is located within the UK Cabinet Office. As its designers emphasize, “the site is a demonstration, and whilst it’s public it’s not permanent and is not replacing any other website.” (The hilarious 404 graphic above was designed by Matt Blease.)

There are some interesting semantics to consider here. In software development, “alpha” refers to the initial release in a software development cycle. In machine learning, alpha is “the degree to which a learning agent takes into account new information.”

In either sense, a government seeking alpha in rebooting its online presence is both taking risks and revisiting what government websites should do in the 21st century. The trial of Alpha.gov.uk offers a toolkit of simple, reusable functions that are oriented around the most common needs that citizens go online to address, like lost passports.

To date, the British plan to reinvent websites has received good press, including an excellent post what Alpha.gov gets right. One notable choice in age of austere budgets: going with an open source platform and using next generation web development tools and languages, including a mix of Ruby and Python. Says Wired UK:

This isn’t the first time that the government has experimented with creating a single site for all departments. From URL directories to public service hubs, sites like direct.gov.uk have often tried to shove the whole shebang into one, hulking site with varying degrees of success.

But Alpha.gov.uk’s daring design, 21st century architecture and expansive ambitions (the content can be easily syndicated to new internet platforms, like apps or IPTV),  could be the way forward.

The Alpha.gov team continues to share more about how Alpha.gov was developed at the project blog, encouraging citizens to play with the prototype and send feedback to Get Satisfaction or to @AlphaGov on Twitter or Facebook.

[Image Credit for Alpha.gov Error Page designed by Matt Blease: Ben Terrett]

FCC.gov 2.0 Preview: FCC launches FCC.us URL shortener

FCC Data Center
FCC Data Center
Later this week, a new version of FCC.gov will go live. It’s a complete redesign of the Federal Communications Online presence. You could even call it a reboot, in keeping with the FCC launch of reboot.gov last January.

There’s much more to report on when the new FCC.gov goes online. For now, here’s a preview of something nifty that’s already live: the new FCC custom URL shortener, FCC.us.

The new custom URL shortener, is based upon bit.ly, like the 1.usa.gov URL shortener for civilian use. It automatically shortens any FCC.gov that’s shortened using bit.ly or the shorter j.mp. For instance, FCC.gov/developer becomes http://fcc.us/bkJYlG. In a new media world that is often shortened to 140 characters, that’s rather handy.

More to come soon.