Stop fishing and start feasting: How citable public documents will change your life

Putting government documents and data online is a great step towards making our government process more transparent to the people it serves, but in many ways simply making the material available is like serving someone dinner by giving them a pond full of fish. The pond is huge and the poor dinner guest doesn’t have any tools. Worse, they’re only looking for one particular bass, and every time someone sends them to where they last saw the fish it’s long gone.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010
The recent healthcare bill was more than 1,000 pages long. The budget can often be half again that big. Commenting on these types of documents as they are currently implemented is extremely challenging. Pointing a finger at that big pond and telling someone that you swear you saw a fish isn’t very effective. It’s even worse when someone swears they saw a fish that isn’t really there and it is effective because no one is willing to refute them. No one has time to wade around themselves and so they take it on faith. The recent “killing grandma” scare is an excellent example.

Citations, first, are a way of pointing at the fish. A simple paragraph level of granularity for references should be enough. This promotes ease of implementation and use and provides a tight enough zoom to bring someone right to the material being discussed.

The next problem is that fish move. If you’re trying to point out a moving fish, and show it to someone later, you need to have a photograph with a timestamp. That line in the budget about forcing our children to manufacture chemical weapons might have moved to page three the next day, or a wily senator may have changed the wording and put it under a different heading. Proper citability requires an archived snapshot of the online material that maintains the integrity of any reference links.

Lastly, for someone to believe you about this fish, you need to have a way of pointing out where you saw it at the specified time. They’ll want to know it was the same pond.

Making it possible to create timestamped permalinks at a paragraph level of granularity would be a huge leap forward in increasing government transparency through its online documents. The same principles apply when producing citable government data. When decided to display visual representations of the data coming in about recovery money around the nation, it quickly became clear that some amount of data was erroneous. When the errors were reported and the data was later modified, there wasn’t any way to go back and compare the two versions to see what changes had taken place. A blogger, reporter, statistician or scientist should be able to run a query against any specific collection of government data, as it was published, for a given version or moment in time.


The nonprofit, nonpartisan League of Technical Voters has proposed a simple, easy to build and implement citability solution. Open source software development is underway and a wide range of government institutions are already on board. If you would like to help with this effort, consider being part of our upcoming codeathon or create your own codeathon.

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