"open government" entries

Knight winners are putting data to work

The common thread among the Knight Foundation's latest grants: practical application of open data.

Data, on its own, locked up or muddled with errors, does little good. Cleaned up, structured, analyzed and layered into stories, data can enhance our understanding of the most basic questions about our world, helping journalists to explain who, what, where, how and why changes are happening.

Last week, the Knight Foundation announced the winners of its first news challenge on data. These projects are each excellent examples of working on stuff that matters: they’re collective investments in our digital civic infrastructure. In the 20th century, civil society and media published the first websites. In the 21st century, civil society is creating, cleaning and publishing open data.

The grants not only support open data but validate its place in the media ecosystem of 2012. The Knight Foundation is funding data science, accelerating innovation in the journalism and media space to help inform and engage communities, a project that they consider “vital to democracy.”

Why? Consider the projects. Safecast creates networked accountability using sensors, citizen science and open source hardware. LocalData is a mobile method for communities to collect information about themselves and make sense of it. Open Elections will create a free, standardized database stream of election results. Development Seed will develop better tools to contribute to and use OpenStreetMap, the “Wikipedia of maps.” Pop Up Archive will develop an easier way to publish and archive multimedia data to the Internet. And Census.IRE.org will improve the ability of a connected nation and its data editors to access and use the work of U.S. Census Bureau.

The projects hint at a future of digital open government, journalism and society founded upon the principles that built the Internet and World Wide Web and strengthened by peer networks between data journalists and civil society. A river of open data flows through them all. The elements and code in them — small pieces, loosely joined by APIs, feeds and the social web — will extend the plumbing of digital democracy in the 21st century.

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Congress launches Congress.gov in beta, doesn’t open the data

The Library of Congress launched a new website for a more mobile public to access legislative information

The Library of Congress is now more responsive — at least when it comes to web design. Today, the nation’s repository for its laws launched a new beta website at Congress.gov and announced that it would eventually replace Thomas.gov, the 17-year-old website that represented one of the first significant forays online for Congress. The new website will educate the public looking for information on their mobile devices about the lawmaking process, but it falls short of the full promise of embracing the power of the Internet. (More on that later).

Tapping into a growing trend in government new media, the new Congress.gov features responsive design, adapting to desktop, tablet or smartphone screens. It’s also search-centric, with Boolean search and, in an acknowledgement that most of its visitors show up looking for information, puts a search field front and center in the interface. The site includes member profiles for U.S. Senators and Representatives, with associated legislative work. In a nod to a mainstay of social media and media websites, the new Congress.gov also has a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest online. (You can download a fact sheet on all the changes as a PDF).

On the one hand, the new Congress.gov is a dramatic update to a site that desperately needed one, particularly in a historic moment where citizens are increasingly connecting to the Internet (and one another) through their mobile devices.

On the other hand, the new Congress.gov beta has yet to realize the potential of Congress publishing bulk open legislative data. There is no application programming interface (API) for open government developers to build upon. In many ways, the new Congress.gov replicates what was already available to the public at sites like Govtrack.us and OpenCongress.org. Read more…

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President Obama participates in first Presidential AMA on Reddit

The President's participation in a user-driven Q&A was a notable precedent in digital democracy.

Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “there are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”

President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.

“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.

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With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenPlans looks to improve transportation infrastructure with open data and open source code.

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

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Palo Alto looks to use open data to embrace ‘city as a platform’

Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental talks about the city's vision for open data.

In the 21st century, one of the strategies cities around the world are embracing to improve services, increase accountability and stimulate economic activity is to publish open data online. The vision for New York City as a data platform earned wider attention last year, when the Big Apple’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, pitched the idea to the public.

This week, the city of Palo Alto in California joined over a dozen cities around the United States and globe when it launched its own open data platform. The platform includes an application programming interface (API) which enables direct access through a RESTful interface to open government data published in a JSON format. Datasets can also be embedded like YouTube videos, as below:

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Mobile participatory budgeting helps raise tax revenues in Congo

The World Bank found the ROI in open government through civic participation and mobile phones.

In a world awash in data, connected by social networks and focused on the next big thing, stories about genuine innovation get buried behind the newest shiny app or global development initiative. For billions of people around the world, the reality is that inequality in resources, access to education or clean water, or functional local government remain serious concerns.

South Kivu, located near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been devastated by the wars that have ravaged the region over the past decade.

Despite that grim context, a pilot program has born unexpected fruit. Mobile technology, civic participation, smarter governance and systems thinking combined to not only give citizens more of a voice in their government but have increased tax revenues as well. Sometimes, positive change happens where one might reasonably least expect it. The video below tells the story. After the jump, World Bank experts talk about story behind the story.

“Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, the beauty of the project in South Kivu is that citizen participation translates into demonstrated and measurable results on mobilizing more public funds for services for the poor,” said Boris Weber, team leader for ICT4Gov at the World Bank Institute for Open Government

, in an interview in Washington. “This makes a strong case when we ask ourselves where the return of investment of open government approaches is.”

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Mr. Issa logs on from Washington

The tech entrepreneur turned legislator on open government, data, regulatory reform and his new foundation.

An interview with Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) on open government, personal data ownership, a digital Bill of Rights, Internet freedom, regulation, and more.

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Rethinking regulatory reform in the Internet age

Rep. Issa advocates for applying evidence-based thinking to regulatory reform.

As the cover story of a February issue of The Economist highlighted, concerns about an over-regulated America are cresting in this election year, with headlines from that same magazine decrying “excessive environmental regulation” and calling for more accurate measurement of the cost of regulations. Deleting regulations is far from easy to do but there does appear to be a political tailwind behind doing so.

As a legislator and chairman of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, it’s fair to say that Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) been quite active in publicly discussing the issue of regulations and regulatory burdens upon business. As a former technology entrepreneur, and a successful one at that (he’s the wealthiest member of Congress) Rep. Issa does have first-hand knowledge of what it takes to run a business, to bring products to market, and to deal with the various regulations.

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this summer, Rep. Issa commented on a number of issues related to open government and the work of the committee. When we talked about smart disclosure and the reforming the Freedom of Information Act, I posed several questions about regulatory data, in the context of its role in the marketplace for products and services. Our interview on regulation is below, followed by a look at how his office and the White House are trying to use the Web to improve regulatory reform and involve citizens in the debate.

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Do citizens have a ‘right to record’ in the digital age?

When Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and I talked this summer about his proposal for a digital Bill of Rights, I followed up by asking him about whether it might be more productive to focus on the rights that we already have in the digital context.

That conversation naturally led to a question about freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, both of which came under some pressure in the United States during the Occupy protests of the past year. Our interview follows.

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Should the Freedom of Information Act extend to data in private companies?

Rep. Issa expressed support for reforming FOIA to include personal data held by companies.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives the people and press the right to access information from government, is one of the pillars of open government in the modern age. In the United States, FOIA is relatively new — it was originally enacted on July 4, 1966. As other countries around the world enshrine the principle into their legal systems, new questions about FOIA are arising, particularly when private industry takes on services that previously were delivered by government.

In that context, one of the federal open government initiatives worth watching in 2012 is ‘smart disclosure,’ the targeted release of information about citizens or about services they consume by government and by private industry. Smart disclosure is notable because there’s some “there there.” It’s not just a matter of it being one of the “flagship open government initiatives” under the U.S. National Plan for open government or that a White House Smart Disclosure Summit in March featured a standing room only audience at the National Archives. When compared to other initiatives, there has been relatively strong uptake of data from government and the private sector and its use in the consumer finance sector. Citizens can download their bank records and use them to make different decisions.

Earlier this summer, I interviewed Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) about a number of issues related to open government, including what he thought of “smart disclosure” initiatives.

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