Open government data gathers bipartisan support in Washington

Two weeks ago at the Strata Conference in NYC, I donned a headset, grabbed a tablet worth of questions and headed to the podium to talk with the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about data and open government.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) joined me via remote webcast from chambers in Washington, D.C. Our crack video team is working on an improved version of this video in which you’ll see my side of the broadcast, along with a boost in audio. Until then, the video that the House Oversight digital team uploaded to YouTube will suffice — and I don’t want to wait to share this story any longer in the meantime, particularly as interest builds behind the principle subject of our conversation, a proposed bill to standardize financial reporting data standards in the federal government and create single database for financial spending.

Daniel Schuman listened in and summarized our conversation on open government data over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog:

The Chairman focused his remarks on the DATA Act, the bipartisan legislation he introduced that would transform how government tracks federal spending and identifies waste, fraud, and abuse.

He emphasized the importance of making government data available online in real time so that innovative minds can immediately make use the information to build their own businesses. Business, in turn, would help the government identify program mismanagement and data quality problems. The Chairman specifically singled out Vice President Biden as a supporter of efforts to find a common solution to make data available in a systematic way.

…Chairman Issa explained that the private sector must step up as advocates for greater openness because they will benefit from building and using the tools made possible by greater transparency. He added when government drives down the cost of obtaining information, private individuals will derive value from the analysis of data, not its ownership.

The cost of good data

Since our conversation, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the DATA Act would cost the government $575 million to implement over 5 years, as reported by FierceGovernmentIT:

“In a cost estimate dated Sept. 16, the CBO attributes $325 million of the estimated total to requirements in the bill regarding the collecting and reporting of financial information. The DATA Act would require federal agencies, and most government contractors and grant award winners to adopt XBRL as a financial data reporting mechanism.”

Left unsaid in the CBO estimate is what the impact of this kind of transparency on the federal government’s finances might be, in terms of savings. House Oversight staff have estimated annual savings from standards and centralized spending database that would more than offset that outlay, including:

  • $41 million in funds recovered from questionable recipients
  • $63 million in funds withheld from questionable recipients
  • $5 billion in savings recommended by inspectors general
  • unknown savings resulting from better internal spending control and better oversight by Congressional appropriators.

The DATA Act, which would expand the role of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to track all federal spending and make all of the information available to the public, has bipartisan support in the Senate from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has introduced a companion bill there.

As NextGov reported yesterday, efforts to require government-wide spending reports have advanced on the Hill, while President Obama has begun the process of establishing a similar board by executive order.

You can read more letters of support that extend from well beyond an Open Government Coalition online over at Scribd, including:

Open government as a bipartisan issue

Given the White House’s embrace of the mantle of open government on President’s first day in office, the executive branch has gathered a lot of the press, attention, praise, scrutiny and criticism in this area.

That looks to be changing, and for the better. As Clay Johnson pointed out at the beginning of 2011, any competition between the White House and Congress on open government is likely to be a win for the American people.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of WashingtonWatch.com, wrote then that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” he opined. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”

The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.

There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”

Johnson identified the moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rose to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government.

The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress, where Republicans hold an edge on social media.

While some projects or choices continue to cast questions on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, with the GOP bending new House rules, there’s progress to report. The leadership of the House of Representatives has supported the creation of open, online video archives, like House.Resource.org. The House revamped its floor feed recently, adding live XML. And House leadership has recently venerated the role of technology in making Congress more transparent, engaged and accountable.

Rep. Issa, in particularly, appears to have taken on open government as a cause and, for the moment, its rhetoric. He even tweets using the #opengov hashtag. When it comes to the legislature, “the American people have a right to all the data from Congress. They have a right,” he said at a recent forum on Congressional transparency, as reported by Diana Lopez.

Government secrecy and transparency are, in theory, non-partisan issues. In practice, they are often used a political bludgeons against an opposing party, particularly by a partisan minority, and then discarded once power is gained. For government transparency to outlast a given White House or Congress, laws and regulatory changes have to happen.

Open government has to be “baked in” to culture, practices, regulations, technology, business practices and public expectations. Needless to say, that’s going to take a while, but it looks like both the administration and some members of Congress are willing to keep trying.

As these efforts go forward, it will be up to the media, businesses, nonprofits, watchdogs and, of course, citizens to hold them accountable for actions taken, not just rhetoric.

What’s the future of the DATA Act?

I’m writing a feature article about the bill, this conversation, context for government performance data and whether open government and transparency will have any legs in the upcoming presidential campaign.

If you have any questions that are unanswered after watching the conversation, comments about the use of XBRL or perspective on the proposed law’s future in Congress, please ring in in the comments or find me at alex[at]oreilly.com.

Reports of the “Death of Open Government” have been greatly exaggerated

Last week, we saw yet another headline about the “death of open government.” Yesterday, the “demise of Data.gov” was incorrectly reported.

After a false report that made its way online in the absence of any fact checking, a call to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or an email to the General Services Administration, I felt the need to shine a little sunlight where I think it’s needed.

First, I contacted Aneesh Chopra, the first federal CTO of the United States, who confirmed that the reports above were simply “untrue” and reported that out. According to Chopra, Data.gov will stay up and be an important part of the U.S. National Plan for Open Government. In the short run, tweeted Chopra, citizens should expect “agency support for data.gov communities. In the long run, Data.gov will become an open source open data platform. (More on that later.)

Second, consider this an “open letter” directed to Steven O’Keefe, founder of Meritalk, author of the latest article declaring that open government “is dead” because of reduced funding for OMB’s e-government fund in Congress.

Yes, people really care. Mr. Okeefe, if you aren’t against the concept of open government, why did you write an inflammatory headline about its “death,” particularly on the same week that a historic global Open Government Partnership launched?

I can think of at least 46 reasons open government is not dead. Last year, in your testimony before the United States Senate on government transparency, you said:

…We are very encouraged by the OMB and Recovery Board response to feedback from the Ogov study. President Obama’s open government initiative is analogous to President Kennedy’s commitment to go to the moon. It is a journey, and key stakeholders in government seem very receptive to building a better open government rocket
ship. The effort will doubtless yield many useful innovations along the way.

Mr. Chairman, it is our sincere hope that open government continues to build momentum in the Federal government. Much room exists for improvement. Our recommendations and observations are but a start toward establishing open government as a mainstream standard operating procedure in the Federal government.

A year later, that tune has changed. As I’ve said elsewhere to the editors of the site, I do not believe that this post was worthy of getting more exposure on on OpenSource.com. The flippancy of “pass the beer nuts” is simply not in-line with the gravity of the subject.

For one, it resulted in an error-filled post by Alberto Cottica that misreported that Data.gov was going to be taken down, a mistake that he failed to apologize for nor fully corrected until directly confronted.

For another, it’s just the next in a series of FUD-filled posts that seem designed to stir up controversy with the “is dead” trope that’s sadly endemic to lazy technology journalism as opposed to sober analysis of the issues. I’ll continue to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog and will again try to unsubscribe from Meritalk’s “cup of IT,” an email newsletter that I somehow was forced to receive after speaking at the recent GOSCON summit.

There are indeed data quality issues on Data.gov, on the IT Dashboard and on USAspending.gov, as the Sunlight Foundation and other journalists have highlighted. The data problems are evident because of open government, not the opposite. A dashboard is only as good as the data put into it. There will be bad data in any large data set. By making data about the business or performance of government public, however, government officials can and do receive feedback upon the issues with it. And as the recently released GAO report on e-government emphasized, the open government platforms need better performance metrics aligned with their goals and improved data quality.

That said, there are larger considerations.

This moment occurs within a far broader historic context, however, than the posts referenced suggest. If you consider the larger sweep of the open government movement at the state, local and international level, any analysis of open government that declares it “alive” or dead based upon funding for the OMB’s eGov fund is limited by its premise, diminished by a myopic inside-the-Beltway perspective that does little to encourage the open source community to care and much more to cause the broader online audience and a global populace stressed by war, unemployment and corruption to be more cynical.

For those concerned about open government in the United States, talk to more journalists whose efforts at newspapers have been essential to holding local government accountable.

For those looking for a serious, well-reported assessment of federal open government policies, as seen through the prism of the media, read this CJR feature on government transparency. While the assessment of the Obama administration’s promises is not kind, the author does cede that there has been marginal improvement in the past three years.

For those who want an even deep analysis by an organization dedicated to open government, read OMB Watch’s assessment of progress of open goverment. Short version: again, improvement but a long road ahead.

Open government is not simply about open data nor OMB’s initiatives, although both are important at the federal level in the United States. Open government is a mindset, a cultural change, and an ongoing process that touches upon every citizen and government official, often indirectly. The conversations about it are supported by technology, its operations are enhanced by technology, and new possibilities are catalyzed by technology. That said, technology is a tool, not an end. Defunding some programs does not mean that “open government is dead” any more than it means representative democracy has expired.

Looking back, this isn’t the first time this issue has come up. Jenn Gustetic dug into similar issues last October when there was a smattering of posts wondering if open government was dead. Luke Fretwell, of Govfresh, responded to Vivek Wadhwa’s well meaning but poorly informaed post on open government earlier this year, after Wadhwa’s Washington Post blog ran a similar headline.

As Nick Judd pointed out in his reporting on open government at the time, there are other reasons to believe that open government data may become more than an executive order soon. Stay tuned on that count.

In the meantime, we can and should do better by our communities.

White House and House GOP turns to the Web to discuss jobs

It’s a tale of two parties, two social networks, live events and high stakes: creating jobs in an American economy still struggling to come out of recession. Would the American Jobs Act, introduced by President Obama earlier this month, make a difference? Can the White House or Congress do anything to create jobs, aside from directly hiring more government workers for infrastructure projects or similar initiatives? The American people will have the opportunity to hear from both sides of the aisle today and judge themselves, starting at 2 PM EST when the president will participate in a town hall hosted at LinkedIn in California.

UPDATE: Archived video from President Obama’s LinkedIn townhall is embedded below:

Notably, there will still be a live chat on Facebook at a LinkedIn townhall, along with a public “backchannel” at the #meetopportunity hashtag on Twitter.

This is the second time that the White House experiments with LinkedIn for questions, following a forum earlier this year with tech CEOs and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra. The questions are pulled from a “putting America back to work forum on LinkedIn.com. As I’ve observed before, the platform isn’t ideal for ideation and moderation of questions but LinkedIn is unquestionably targeted towards employment.

Personally, I’d like to see CEO Jeff Weiner crunch the big data the social network has collected about job openings and the skills and degrees that high school and college grads currently have. Programs and policies oriented towards matching the two would be an interesting direction.

UPDATE: Here are the questions that were asked:

UPDATE: Below is a “storified” tweetstream from the event:



 

House GOP Leaders discuss technology, transparency and jobs

At 6 PM EST, the leaders of the Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives will also host an online townhall, though they’ll be doing it on Facebook Live. The event will feature House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will moderate.

Prior to today’s event, the House GOP leaders participated in a discussion about the role social media and technology now plays in government with Politico’s senior White House correspondent, Mike Allen. Video is below:

In the interview, the House GOP’s “Young Guns” spoke at length about the role that new social and mobile technology plays in the work of Congress and government, touching upon many subjects that will be of interest to the open government community.

Such interest is hardly new — the new GOP majority came into the House with promises to embrace innovation and transparency— but given the importance of open government, it’s a useful reminder that open government is a bipartisan issue.

If you have thoughts or comments on either of the town halls or the discussion above, please share them in the comments.

UPDATE: The archived video of this congressional “Facehall” is embedded below:

UPDATE: A Storify of my own tweets during the event is embedded below:

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:


Obama administration releases open government status report

The Obama administration has released a status report on open government.

The report, which I’ve embedded below, was released through a blog post at Whitehouse.gov by Steven Croley, special assistant and senior counsel to the President:

President Obama has made open government a high priority. Greater openness renders our government more efficient and effective. It strengthens our democracy. It improves our citizens’ lives.

To these ends, the Administration has taken many substantial steps to promote increased participation and collaboration in government, and to make government more transparent. For example, federal agencies have increased transparency through redoubled efforts to disclose more information under the Freedom of Information Act. They have implemented ambitious Open Government Plans, and made voluminous data newly available to the public. The Administration has also made spending information more transparent, and taken steps to disclose previously sensitive government information.

Of course, creating a more open government requires sustained effort. How best to harness new technologies in the service of open government, to strike the proper balance between transparency and the protection of national security and personal privacy, to change agency culture so that openness becomes the new normal–such issues require long-term commitment.

But it is useful to take stock of the Administration’s accomplishments along the way. Accordingly, today the White House is releasing The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government: A Status Report (pdf). This status report highlights the breadth of the Administration’s commitment to open government, documents the substantial progress made on many of the Administration’s open government initiatives, and anticipates continued progress. Although not an exhaustive compilation of our open government efforts, thi provides a compelling picture of how far the Administration has already come towards forging a more open government.

Open Government Status Report

View more documents from White House

As Nick Judd points out in his report at techPresident, the report comes a week before President Obama’s open government speech at the launch of the international Open Government Partnership in New York City.

The 34-page report is a highlight reel of everything the administration has accomplished on open government, claiming victories in increased agency responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests, the release of government data online, and better communication using web tools. It comes as the Obama administration prepares to make good on a challenge the president himself issued at last year’s convening of the U.N. General Assembly to return there this month with concrete steps to make governments more open, participatory and collaborative.

“We are pleased to see the Administration undertaking this kind of review because it gives us an all opportunity to reflect on what goals have been met and what challenges we agree remain,” wrote Patrice McDermott, director of Open the Government, in a post at OpenTheGovernment.org. “We hope our advocacy and the Administration’s actions will result in an even more impressive report in the future.”

OpenTheGovernment recently released its own “Progress Report on Openness and Secrecy in the Obama Administration” that was somewhat less glowing, balancing both promising and “troubling directions” for open government.

Stay tuned for more on what further commitments the White House will make in its upcoming U.S. National Plan and the commitments of other countries. For further context, read these notes from the White House open government partnership consultation and the links embedded in tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive.

The Internet will ask (some of) the questions in the Fox News/Google Republican debate

On September 22, the Republican candidates for president will be in Orlando, Florida for the next debate. Unlike the last debate, where moderators from NBC and Politico chose the questions, Google-Fox News debate will use Google Moderator and YouTube to bubble up questions from the Internet. Questions can be submitted as text or video through the Fox News YouTube channel. The deadline is September 21st. The video embedded below introduces the concept:

Fox News anchor Brett Baer explains the process below and encourages people to submit questions “creatively” — which means that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney could potentially be confronted by a YouTube snowman of the sort he didn’t care much for in 2007.

For good or ill, that kind of question in that kind of costume is likely to be part of the warp and weft of presidential politics in the 21st century. President Obama’s Twitter townhall” featured several questions from people with quirky account names or avatars. Bringing YouTube into the discussion will allow even more self expression and, while Fox News has the ability not to broadcast a video, millions of connected Americans can go watch the videos themselves if they choose. At the moment, the top-rated questions are substantive ones:

  • How do you intend to shift some of the power and influence of large corporations in Washington DC back to the average American and small business owner?
  • Would you support term limits for Congress?
  • As president, would you support the elimination of government agencies or departments as a means to reduce our government’s size and spending? If so, which agencies or departments would you eliminate or substantially downsize?
  • We’ll see if the question about marijuana legalization that has so frequently bubbled up to the top of Moderator instances for the president ends up in this one.

    Designing digital democracy is hard. The structures and conventions that have evolved for deliberative democracy, as messy as it can be offline, don’t transfer perfectly into machine code. Many different companies, civic entrepreneurs, nonprofits and public servants are working to create better online forums for discussion that make better use of technology. Last week, ASU journalism professor and author Dan Gillmor commented in the Guardian that is was past time for “presidential primary debate 2.0, where the Internet would a much bigger role in the structure, format and substance of these events. As Gillmor observes, “truly using the web would mean creating a much more ambitious project.”

    Imagine, for example, a debate that unfolds online over the course of days, or even weeks and months. While they’d include audio, video and other media, these debates would necessarily exist, for the most part, in the more traditional form of text, which is still by far the best for exploring serious issues in serious ways. Questions would be posed by candidates to each other, as well as by journalists and the public. But an answer would not be the end of that round; in fact, it would only be the beginning.

    We’re not there yet. In less than two weeks, however, we’ll see if the hybrid Fox News-Google Moderator approach comes any closer to bringing the Internet into the debate in any sort of meaningful way than it has in the past.

    You can learn more about how Google Moderator is being used for civic discourse in this article on #AskObama on YouTube.

Open Government Partnership expands to include at least 22 countries at launch

With two weeks left before a historic announcement in New York City at the United Nations, the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) has expanded to include fourteen more countries. The news of the expansion was first reported by FreedomInfo.org, which quoted an unnamed U.S. official.

The newly added countries include Kenya, Guatemala, Honduras, Albania, Macedonia, Malta, Georgia, Moldova, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Israel, Croatia, Mongolia and Lithuania. The original eight country members of the OGP are the United States and Brazil (co-chairs of OGP), South Africa, the United Kingdom, Norway, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“These are governments from whom we’ve received formal letters of intent,” said Caroline Mauldin, special assistant to Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero at U.S. Department of State. “We’re very energized by the number of countries who are ready to step up to the Open Government Partnership plate.” Mauldin tells me that more letters of intent are still coming in, which will add further to the participants.

Expanding the number of countries committing to more open government is not in principle a bad thing, although the devil is the details, as ever. Brazil and the Philippines, for instance, are still working on Freedom of Information laws. We’ll learn more over the next two weeks, until the official Heads of State launch on the margins of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. I’ll be sharing news and information as I go during the next 14 days and from the Big Apple on September 20th.

“All of the new countries are committing to developing their own country action plans in consultation with civil society, which they will announce at an OGP meeting in March 2012,” said Mauldin. “The ‘consultative process’ is the part of OGP that guarantees an ongoing, iterative dialogue with civil society.”

These letters will commit participating countries to broad principles but leave many specifics to individual governments. “OGP is structured to foster accountability between a government and its people,” said Mauldin. “A country can design their own mechanisms, so they’ll likely vary from one place to the next; of course, one key reason why countries are joining is so they can learn from one another.” That flexibility could be important in many contexts, as Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio observed in his post on the Open Government Partnership:

Open government can be used to fight corruption, to increase the trust in government, to counterbalance the effects of excessive churn in government, to reduce the cost of government, and so forth. But in order to deliver on these different objectives, it does require different approaches.

The risk – like similar initiatives on e-government led by the UN or the EU have clearly shown – is that leading countries tend to showcase their approaches, which are almost automatically taken as best practices. But what is a best practice for a federal agency in the US or a large city in the UK may be either irrelevant or even counterproductive in a place like Moldova or Albania, just to name two.

All that said, it bears noting that the OGP is substantially expanding and the news seems to have been leaked without attribution initially, as opposed to an official announcement by the White House, State Department or OGP or anyone else on the record. The open government community should expect ongoing announcement regarding new participants, the September 20th event, a declaration and all letters to go up on OpenGovPartnership.org — but it’s not there yet, and the @OpenGovPart Twitter account has gone silent. In the U.S., the recommendations that have been collected by the White House as part of its consultation for the U.S. National Plan are only public if the entities submitting them have published them, like the open government recommendations by Clay Johnson at Expert Labs.

For more context, Nick Judd has published a comprehensive report on the expansion of the OGP roster over at techPresident and my notes from the White House open government partnership consultation. FreedomInfo.org also collected more OGP news from South Africa, India and the new White House’s epetition initiative.

White House offers “We the People” online petitions at WhiteHouse.gov

With We the People,” the White House has added a new page to WhiteHouse.gov and has announced a potentially disruptive feature for an American public that increasingly turning online for government information and political action: online petitions.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” reads a statement by President Barack Obama at WhiteHouse.gov. “That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

There’s a big idea embedded in this launch, going back to the original compact between the American people and its government. The First Amendment of United States Constitution gives citizens the right to petition their government. In the 21st century, the Internet provides a new means for such petitions to be made.

“With We the People, we’re offering a new way to submit an online petition on a range of issues — and get an official response,” writes Macon Phillips, White House director of digital in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post announcing We the People.

He explains more in the video embedded below and invites people to sign up for email updates when We The People goes live.

Phillips explained the basics of how the White House e-petitions will work on the White House blog. Here’s the key takeaways:

  • Citizens can create or sign e-petitions on a “range of issues” — it’s not clear yet whether citizens can define their own issues or will have to choose from a list.
  • If an e-petition gathers more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days, White House officials will review and answer it.
  • Initially, an e-petition will have a unique URL that only its creator knows. “It’s up to that person to share it in their network to gather an initial amount of signatures — initially 150 — before it is searchable on WhiteHouse.gov. ” It’s not clear what a “network” means but it likely refers to Twitter or Facebook, like the way act.ly works.

There are still many questions that remain in terms of how this is going to work or how it’s going to fit into a 21st century e-democracy. As Phillips recognized, the United States isn’t the first to try this: the United Kingdom offers e-petitions, and according to Phillips, “this work was very helpful as we developed our own.”

The sticky e-widget there is that the UK dropped e-petitions late last year as the new prime minister came into office, due to negative publicity and other issues. Reasonably, we can expect there to be similar challenges with the White House version. The UK has since relaunched its e-petitions site, as Phillips points out, and sharedplans to release the e-petitions code on Github.While it’s not clear yet who built the White House version, it’s possible that they used this code, given the support for open source that Philips has demonstrated over the past three years. The White House built the system in house, according to Phillips.

The initial response online ranges from celebration, including a “high five from PopVox,” to extreme skepticism.

Open government godfather Carl Malamud the long view: “Nice job on We The People,” he tweeted. “Treading in the footsteps of the Founders, petitions have a long and honorable history in our republic!”

“What difference do they make?” tweeted FutureGov Dominic Campbell. “None. Just a distraction technique to pacify the masses. Need new politics not gimmicks. Backbenchers are generally as influential over govt policy as my gran. And she’s dead. Petition / precise tech tool is irrelevant, it’s all about political culture. Petitions are lame. All power is in the hands of govt. Not game changing. More make u feel better/doing *something*.” While the UK petitions have come back, “You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in UK speak +vely of them. Waste of space… think they just reinforce status quo and reward loudest/best organised. Not democracy. ”

Former Sunlight Foundationer Jake Brewer dug into some of the structural issues that exist with this approach. The “only reason “We the People” would [be] useful vs other tools is if @WhiteHouse can convince all they are listening & meaningfully responding,” he tweeted.

“It strikes me though that “giving people a voice” is not at all the problem in gov. Many ways to talk AT gov. Few ways to do so usefully.We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen & operationalize good ideas. What will be an agency’s incentive to take any action based on a petition? Will Whitehouse pressure? Petitions to Congress (theoretically) work because Reps want to be responsive/re-elected. Exec not the same, so how to handle? Guess I’m having a hard time seeing “We the People” as anything more than gov 2.0 theater, and I’d like to be wrong. We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas.”

Questions for We the People

The White House is taking questions on We the People using the feedback form at White House.gov and on Twitter, using the hashtag #WHWeb, where Phillips is listening as @macon44.

Why do petitions at all? “Online petitions are commonly understood, and petitions have been part of our democracy since the beginning,” he tweeted.

When asked by Nancy Scola whether the thinking with We the People is to “have @whitehouse act as [a] clearinghouse for petitions directed towards agencies,” Phillips replied: “People shouldn’t have to decipher how the executive branch is organized in order to speak out about an issue. Processing incoming petitions handled by WH, but relevant petitions will be coordinated w/others as needed, including Agencies.”

In response to a question by @abc4all, Phillips tweeted that “participation in We the People is open to the general public (13yrs+) & requires a valid email address.”

When Alex Rose asked if “WH have a profile of citizens based on petitions we support on We the People? Who can access aggregated data?,” Phillips replied that “only a small group of wh staff will have access to administrative data We the People will be subject to a public privacy policy.”

Here are the questions I’ve tweeted out and their answers:

Who built the e-petitions function? Is it the the same code as the UK tool?

Answer: “System design and development of We the People was developed in house,” tweeted Phillips.

How will identity be handled? How will the White House authenticate citizens to e-petitions government?

Answer: “Lightweight – participation will require an email verification step,” tweeted Phillips. “For now we are using first party WH accounts that verify an email address. Plan to incorporate NSTIC rec’s in future http://1.usa.gov/p7n8HR ”

Do you have to be a citizen?

Answer: “Right now the system only requires valid email and does not verify citizenship,” tweeted Phillips.

How will social media be integrated? 

Answer: “when you create a petition you get a unique link. How you share that is up to you. Will have @facebook & @twitter share [buttons],” tweeted Phillips. yes, just like other content on wh.gov

Can citizens ask questions using We The People on whatever topic they wish or will these be predefined? The screenshot below implies the latter categorization: taxonomy, not folksonomy.

Answer: “there will be a defined set of topic people can choose from but its a wide range, and there will also be ad hoc tags,” tweeted Phillips.

Will there be an API so that civic developers can visualize and analyze them to see if there are duplicates or emerging themes?

Answer: “Not now; API’s for analysis & extending petition functionality on a long list of features we we are considering for future. With [federal CIO] Steve upstairs now, thinking through how that can best work is both a priority & more informed.”

Why build this when services like PopVox, Votizen and Change exist to create social e-petitions?

Answer: “Developing We the People ourselves […] offers the flexibility to adapt to the public response to improve engagement,” tweeted Phillips. “It’s a false choice to say _either_ We the People _or_ others – there’s lots of collaboration ahead, this space is still young.”

There’s another key detail: these e-petitions would go to the executive branch, whereas Votizen and PopVox are targeted at Congress and constituent communications.

The creator of act.ly, Jim Gilliam, offered some of his own perspective and questions. “I built a petition/priority tool White House 2 back in 2008. I learned a lot, happy to share,” he tweeted to Phillips, linking to his post on White House 2.0. On this count, the White House was listening: Phillips asked Gilliam to “dm him his email address.” Here’s a look back at “imagining White House 2.0” from the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum:

“I figured out all the problems, except for one. getting the white house to pay attention. (or maybe it just took 3yrs),” tweeted Gilliam.

He highlighted two issues, one for advocates and one for White House technologists: “”How will the white house use all the email addresses it collects with new petition tool? Advocacy groups will have to decide whether to send their people to whitehouse.gov at the expense of their own list building,” he tweeted. “White house will need some serious anti-spam jujitsu to knock back the tools that scrape congressional forms.”

Perhaps most important, how will citizens know that they’re being heard by the White House, that these e-petitions matter, and that this will not be a public relations exercise that ends with a thank you letter from staff?

This goes to the issue of connecting e-petition action to results. “OpenGov has the equivalent of a “last mile” problem: a culture+digital-infrastructure gap at the workgroup level,” tweeted Dan Latorre, leader of Digital Placemaking and creator ofFixCity.org.

For instance, if enough people sign e-petitions on withdrawing from Afghanistan, supporting gay marriage, legalizing marijuana or opposing ICE takedowns of websites without judicial review, will the White House change its policy?

Stay tuned for answers [See above] and upon launch, outcomes.

East Coast earthquake cements role of social media in government crisis communications

At approximately 1:51:04 ET today, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake 3.7 miles below Virginia rattled the east coast of the United States from South Carolina to Maine.

A 3D map of the earthquake from DC-based DevelopmentSeed, embedded below, visualizes the intensity of the tremblor.

Thankfully, today’s earthquake does not appear to have caused any deaths nor collapsed buildings or bridges, although the National Cathedral sustained what officials call “substantial earthquake damage.” Longer term earthquake damage in DC will take time to assess. Eric Wemple has a comprehensive assessment of earthquake coverage that includes links to more logistical details and assessments, if you’re interested.

A reminder to prepare

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate talked directly to the public over the Internet, using his Twitter account, emphasizing that this quake is a reminder to get prepared.

He also highlighted a critical resource for an increasingly mobile citizenry, m.fema.gov/earthquake, and hurricanes.gov, which will be an important source of information as Hurricane Irene moves up the coast.

Additionally, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell compiled an excellent short federal government primer to earthquake preparedness that’s full of more resources, including what to do before, during and after an earthquake

Key earthquake information can be found at Ready.gov and the FEMA, USGS and Centers for Disease Control Websites. USGS also provides a seven-step Protecting Your Family From Earthquakes safety guide (embed below).

Remember, prepare, plan and stay informed.

Social media fills a fault

seismic waves by xkcd

While both DC residents and people across the United States took the opportunity to joke about the quake using Twitter, a more sobering reality emerged as residents found themselves unable to make phone calls over overloaded cellphone networks: social networks offered an important alternate channel to connect with friends, family and coworkers. In the context of overloaded networks, the Department of Homeland Security offered earthquake advice: don’t call. In fact, DHS urged urged citizens to use social media to contact one another. The White House amplified that message:

RT @DHSJournal: Quake: Tell friends/family you are OK via text, email and social media (@twitter & facebook.com). Avoid calls.less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply

 

Citizens didn’t need much urging to turn to social networks after the quake. According to

Facebook hosts conversation with Red Cross on social media in emergencies

The day after the earthquake, in what turns out to be an unusually good scheduling choice, Facebook DC is hosting a conversation with the Red Cross on the use of social media in emergencies. As a new infographic from the Red Cross, embedded below, makes clear, the importance of emergency social data has grown over the past year.

Social Media in Emergencies

According to a new national survey:

  • The Internet is now the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information, after television and local radio
  • Nearly a fourth of the online population would use social media to let family and friends know they are safe.
  • 80% of the general public surveyed believe emergency response organizations should monitor social media.
  • About one third of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive within an hour.

The event will be livestreamed on Facebook DC’s page at 3 PM EDT, if you’re online and free to tune in.

Watch live streaming video from facebookdclive at livestream.com

More Americans Using Social Media and Technology in Emergencies