Digital democracy reforms tends to advance or retreat in fits and starts, but when exigent circumstances require more from us and our governments, change can happen unexpectedly. On May 26, I requested an absentee ballot, intending to cast my vote … Continue reading
Category Archives: civic tech
What cities can learn from Gainesville’s experiment with radical transparency
There’s much to be learned from the experience of the city Gainesville, Florida, where a commissioners voted in 2014 to publish the public’s email correspondence with them and the mayor online.
More than five years on, the city government and its residents have are ground zero for an tumultuous experiment in hyper-transparent government in the 21st century, as Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser.
It’s hard not to read this story and immediately see a core flaw in the design of this digital governance system: the city government is violating the public’s expectation of privacy by publishing email online.
“Smart cities” will look foolish if they adopt hyper-transparent government without first ensuring the public they serve understands whether their interactions with city government will be records and published online.
Unexpected sunshine will also dissolve public trust if there’s a big gap between the public’s expectations of privacy and the radical transparency that comes from publishing the emails residents send to agencies online.
Residents should be offered multiple digital options for interacting with governments. In addition to exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and petition on the phone, in written communications with a given government, or in person at hearing or town halls, city (and state) governments should break down three broad categories of inquiries into different channels:
Emergency Requests: Emergency calls go to 911 from all other channels. Calls to 911 are recorded but private by default. Calls should not be disclosed online without human review.
Service Requests: Non-emergency requests should go 311, through a city call center or through 311 system. Open data with 311 requests is public by default and are disclosed online in real-time.
Information Requests: People looking for information should be able to find a city website through a Web search or social media. A city.gov should use a /open page that includes open data, news, contact information for agencies and public information officers, and a virtual agent or “chat bot” to guide their search.
If proactive disclosures aren’t sufficient, then there should be way to make Freedom of Information Act requests under the law if the information people seek is not online. But public correspondence with agencies should be private by default.
Digital technologies are disrupting democracies, for both good and ill
Elon University and Pew Research Center asked experts what the impact of digital disruption will be upon democracy in 2030: Perspectives differ! About half predicted that humans will use technology to weaken democracy over the next decade, with concerns grounded … Continue reading
NBC’s sprawling 10-person debates show why a foundering TV format needs to be rebooted for the Internet Age
There’s no shortage of commentary from partisans, pundits, politicians, and political reporters about who “won” or “lost” last night’s Democratic presidential debate on NBC News, honing in on how the candidates performed, rose, fell, responded or rebutted one another, or … Continue reading
Sunshine and comity featured at US House Modernization Committee hearing
On May 10, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in the United States House of Representatives held a hearing on “opening up the process,” at which 4 different experts talked with Congress about making legislative information more transparent,” from ongoing efforts to proposed reforms to the effect of sunshine laws passed decades ago.
If you’re not up to speed on this committee, it was established on January 4, 2019 the House voted in favor of establishing the Select Committee by an overwhelming margin (418-12) by adopting of Title II of H.Res.6, the Rules of the House of Representatives for the One Hundred Sixteenth Congress, with a sole authority of investigating, studying, holding public hearings, making finding, and developing recommendations to modernize Congress – but no legislative jurisdiction nor ability to take legislative action. The committee has has been fairly described by IssueOne as “the best opportunity in decades” for Congress to improve itself, by looking inward.
The two hours of discussion on May 10 mostly added up to good news for good government, with useful summaries of progress opening up Congress to date from the deputy clerk of the House, proposed recommendations and reforms from GovTrack founder Josh Tauberer and DemandProgress policy director Daniel Schuman that would build on that progress, and some skepticism of sunshine in the legislative process from University of Maryland professor Frances Lee.
I attended the hearing and tweeted from it, as has been my practice for nearly a decade in DC:
The thread of tweets above, however is not meant to be comprehensive, nor could it be fully contextualized in the moment. For that, watch the hearing on YouTube, in the video embedded below:
…and read a summary of the hearing from the Congressional Institute, reporting from Federal Computer Week on “transparency through technology” and Roll Call on ongoing development of an “artificial intelligence engine” (applying machine-learning to structured legislative data), and the latest edition of Demand Progress’ First Branch Forecast, in which Schuman summarizes his testimony and aspects of the hearing.
He and Tauberer recommended from appointing a legislative branch Chief Data Officer, releasing structured data that would feed into the clerk’s tool to show how proposed amendments would change bills, and enact a mandate and open standards for a unique identifier for lobbyists across the U.S. government. Whether those ideas make it into the committee’s recommendations remains to be seen, but they’re worth weighing – along with further studying of the value or risk of increasing or decreasing public access to various aspects of the deliberative processes that constitute legislative and oversight activities.
On a meta note, the process on display at this forum was notable for comity between witnesses and members, openness to the public and press, and engagement online.
The medium is still the message, when it comes showing (not telling) how open a given institution is.
While paying attention to the digital component has become downright mundane in 2019, the Committee demonstrated admirable competence, streaming the hearing online at YouTube, publicized it on social media prior to the event, engaged with the public during the hearing, and published testimony on its website afterwards. (Unfortunately, there’s no text transcription of the hearing on the hearing page. Given the committee’s acknowledgement of the importance of accessibility, it should make sure to get transcripts online.)
As at the most recent “Congressional hackathons,” Members of Congress were able to show good government, ethics and transparency, far away from partisan rancor over white hot political issues or Congressional attempts to conduct constitutional oversight of a corrupt administration.
If you’re interested in following the activities of the committee or providing feedback, visit Modernizecongress.House.gov and scrub in: the People’s House will only be as open, accessible, accountable, and effective as we make it – or demand it to be. There’s no one else coming to help.
Livestreaming ban in Tennessee House shows how power can limit the right to record
Livestreaming is not new to American politics in 2019. presidential candidates started using uStream in 2008. But it is much easier than ever before. Recent advances in smartphones and wirelesss Internet access have radically improved the capacity of politicians and … Continue reading
Why I’m joining the Sunlight Foundation
I won’t bury the lede on this story: today is my first day at the Sunlight Foundation as a senior analyst. I’m enormously excited to be joining an organization that’s been at the heart of a global movement towards opening governments to the people they serve with technology, from open source to open data.
If you’ve followed my writing and interests over the past decade, you know that I’m passionate about open government in all of its forms. I’ve been humbled to meet thousands of people around the world who are deeply committed to public service and improving how government functions.
This is a natural fit. From improving public access to information to civic engagement to collaboration around code to participation in democratic governance processes, from regulations to legislation, the Sunlight Foundation has been at the cutting edge of making government more open, effective and accountable.
There’s also a personal reason I made this decision: Jake Brewer, a former Sunlighter and White House staffer who we lost far too early last year, frequently urged me to to make the most of my short time on Earth. This is the right place for me to be.
Long-time readers should expect me to continue writing and participating in this role, creating acts of advocacy journalism in the public interest.
I believe that people have a right to know what is being done in their name by their elected governments. Implicit in that view is the notion that representative democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the rest. It’s up to us to protect and improve the states that we have founded and fought to preserve.
As people who have been paying close attention to Sunlight know, it’s an organization in transition. I’m proud to join up with this open government “restartup”, pitching in where ever my talents are helpful. I believe 2016 is going to be a dynamic year at Sunlight, which is why I’ve thrown in my lot with the extraordinary folks on staff.
I hope that you will continue to send your thoughts, feedback, suggestions, tips and ideas my way in the days and months to come.
15 key insights from the Pew Internet and Life Project on the American public, open data and open government
Today, a new survey released by the Pew Research Internet and Life Project provided one of the most comprehensive snapshots into the attitudes of the American public towards open data and open government to date. In general, more people surveyed are guardedly optimistic about the outcomes and release of open data, although that belief does vary with their political views, trust in government, and specific areas. (Full disclosure: I was consulted by Pew researchers regarding useful survey questions to pose.)
“Trust in government is the reference that people bring to their answers on open government and open data,” said John Horrigan, the principal researcher on the survey, in an interview. “That’s the frame of reference people bring. A lot of people still aren’t familiar with the notion, and because they don’t have a framework about open data, trust dominates, and you get the response that we got.”
While majorities of the American public use applications and services that use government data, from GPS to weather to transit to health apps, relatively few are aware that data produced and released by government drives them.
“The challenge for activists or advocates in this space will be to try to make the link between government data and service delivery outcomes,” said Horrigan. “If the goals are to make government perform better and maybe reverse the historic tide of lowered trust, then the goal is to make improvements real in delivery. If this is framed just as argument over data quality, it would go into an irresolvable back and forth into the quality of government data collection. If you can cast it beyond whether unemployment statistics are correct or not but instead of how government services improve or saved money, you have a chance of speaking to wether government data makes things better.”
The public knowledge gap regarding this connection is one of the most important points that proponents, advocates, journalists and publishers who wish to see funding for open data initiatives be maintained or Freedom of Information Act reforms pass.
“I think a key implication of the findings is that – if advocates of government data initiatives hope that data will improve people’s views about government’s efficacy – efforts by intermediaries or governments to tie the open data/open government to the government’s collection of data may be worthwhile,” said Horrigan. “Such public awareness efforts might introduce a new “mental model” for the public about what these initiatives are all about. Right now, at least as the data for this report suggests, people do not have a clear sense of government data initiatives. And that means the context for how they think about them has a lot to do with their baseline level of trust in the government – particularly the federal government.”
Horrigan suggested thinking about this using a metaphor familiar to anyone who’s attended a middle school dance.
“Because people do engage with the government online, just through services, it’s like getting them on a big dance floor,” he suggested. “They’re on the floor, where you want them, but they’re on the other part of it. They don’t know that there’s another part of the dance that they’d like to see or be drawn to that they’d want to be in. There’s an opportunity to draw them. The good news that they’re on the dance floor, the bad news is they don’t know about all of it. Someone might want to go over and talk to them an explain that if you go over here you might have a better experience.”
Following are 13 more key insights about the public’s views regarding the Internet, open data and government. For more, make sure to read the full report on open government data, which is full of useful discussion of its findings.
One additional worth noting before you dive in: this survey is representative of American adults, not just the attitudes of people who are online. “The Americans Trends Panel was recruited to be nationally representative, and is weighted in such a way (as nearly all surveys are) to ensure responses reflect the general population,” said Horrigan. “The overall rate of internet use is a bit higher than we typically record, but within the margin of error. So we are comfortable that the sample is representative of the general population.”
Growing number of Americans adults are using the Internet to get information and data
While Pew cautions that the questions posed in this survey are different from another conducted in 2010, the trend is clear: the way citizens communicate with government now includes the Internet, and the way government communicates with citizens increasingly includes digital channels. That use now includes getting information or data about federal, state and local government.
College-educated Americans and millennials are more hopeful about open data releases
Despite disparities in trust and belief in outcomes, there is no difference in online activities between members of political parties
Wealthier Americans are comfortable with open data about real estate transactions but not individual mortgages
This attitude is generally true across all income levels.
College graduates, millennials and higher-income adults are more likely to use data to monitor government performance
About a third of college grads, young people and wealthy Americans have checked out performance data or government contracting data, or about 50% more than other age groups, lower income or non-college grads.
The ways American adults interact with government services and data digitally are expanding
But very few American adults think government data sharing is currently very effective:
A small minority of Americans, however, have a great deal of trust in federal government at all:
In fact, increasing individual use of data isn’t necessarily correlated with belief in positive outcomes:
Pew grouped the 3,212 respondents into four quadrants, seen below, with a vertical axis ranging from optimism to skepticism and a horizontal axis that described use. Notably, more use of data doesn’t correlate to more belief in positive outcomes.
“In my mind, you have to get to the part of the story where you show government ran better as a result,” said Horrigan. “You have to get to a position where these stories are being told. Then, at least, while you’re opening up new possibilities for cynicism or skepticism, you’re at least focused on the data as opposed to trust in government.”
Belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is correlated with a belief that your voice matters in this republic:
If you trust the federal government, you’re more likely to see the benefit in open data:
But belief in positive outcomes from the release of open data is related to political party affiliation:
Put simply, Democrats trust the federal government more, and that relates to how people feel about open data released by that government.
Political party has an impact upon the view of open data in the federal government
One challenge is that if President Barack Obama says “open data” again, he may further associate the release of government data with Democratic policies, despite bipartisan support for open government data in Congress. If a Republican is elected President in November 2016, however, this particular attitude may well shift.
“That’s definitely the historic pattern, tracked over time, dating to 1958,” said Horrigan, citing a Pew study. “If if holds and a Republican wins the White House, you’d expect it to flip. Let’s say that we get a Republican president and he continues some of these initiatives to make government perform better, which I expect to be the case. The Bush administration invested in e-government, and used the tools available to them at the time. The Obama administration picked it up, used the new tools available, and got better. President [X] could say this stuff works.”
The unresolved question that we won’t know the answer to until well into 2017, if then, is whether today’s era of hyper-partisanship will change this historic pattern.
There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to use government data better in government. Democratss want to improve efficiency and effectiveness, Republicans want to do the same, but often in the context of demonstrating that programs or policies are ineffective and thereby shrink government. If the country can rise about partisan politics to innovate government, awareness of the utility of releases will grow, along with support for open data will grow.
“Many Americans are not much attuned to government data initiatives, which is why they think about them (in the attitudinal questions) through the lens of whether they trust government,” said Horrigan. “Even the positive part of the attitudinal questions (i.e., the data initiatives can improve accountability) has a dollop of concern, in that even the positive findings can be seen as people saying: ‘These government data initiatives might be good because they will shine more light on government – which really needs it because government doesn’t perform well enough.’ That is an opportunity of course – especially for intermediaries that might, through use of data, help the public understand how/whether government is being accountable to citizens.”
That opportunity is cause for hope.
“Whether it is ‘traditional’ online access for doing transactions/info searches with respect to government, or using mobile apps that rely on government data, people engage with government online, “said Horrigan. “That creates the opportunity for advocates of government data initiatives to draw citizens further down the path of understanding (and perhaps better appreciating) the possible impacts of such initiatives.”
Hillary Clinton hires Google product manager for civic innovation and social impact as campaign CTO
In hiring Stephanie Hannon to be her campaign’s chief technology officer, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not just bringing on a former Cisco software engineer with product management experience at Google and Facebook and time in the trenches at tech startups: she’s added a woman who’s deeply immersed in the civic technology movement and knowledgeable about open data. Just watch her talk at the 2014 Code for America Summit:
So, here’s the bad news: Hannon was a product manager for Gmail and Google Wave, so steel yourself for a lot of bad jokes in the days and months ahead in the media, given her new boss’ questionable choices about email as Secretary of State and Google Wave’s demise. While a B.A. and an M.S. in electrical engineering from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard will insulate her from the some of the lamer slings and arrows, get ready for unsubtle, tortured metaphors and misogyny in the comment sections.
Here’s the mixed news: Hannon’s focus on open data on Google appears to have been on standards, services and civic impact, not accountability and transparency. Take a look at her presentation, embedded below:
Given the record of the Obama administration, it remains to be seen whether Clinton will proactively adopt an ambitious agenda on open government if elected, from implementing and resource FOIA reforms, whistleblower support or nominating inspector generals for all federal agencies.
And here’s the good news: while political observers will (and should!) no doubt focus upon her ability to duplicate the success of Harper Reed, the CTO for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, Clinton just brought someone who’s tapped into what’s happening in the civic tech space into orbit. If that experience elevates those issues into the campaign and national conversation, it will stand to benefit everyone working towards improving civic life in America. If Clinton starts talking about “building better governance with the people, not for them” on the campaign trail, you’ll know something important has occurred.