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This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) July 30, 2014
Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:
On May 30, I gave a keynote talk on my research on the art and science of data journalism at the first Tow Center research conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. I’ve embedded the video below:
My presentation is embedded below, if you want to follow along or visit the sites and services I described.
Here’s an observation drawn from an extensive section on open government that should be of interest to readers of this blog:
“Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.”
Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques.”
My contribution was only one part of the proceedings for “Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation,” which you can catch up through the Tow Center’s live blog or TechPresident’s coverage of measuring the impact of journalism.
— Michael Keller (@mhkeller) May 30, 2014
You could spend a long day listing all of the organizations or individuals who are putting government data online, from Carl Malamud to open government activists in Brazil, Africa or Canada. As many conversations in the public domain over the past few years have demonstrated, there are many different perspectives on what purposes “open data” should serve, often informed by what advocates intend or related to an organization or institution’s goals. For those interested, I recommend the open data seminar and associated comments highly.
When and if such data includes ratings or malpractice information about hospitals or doctors, or fees for insurance companies, transparency and accountability is an important byproduct, which in turn does have political implications. (Watch the reaction of unions or doctors’ groups to performance or claims data going online for those conflicts.)
There are people who want to see legislatures open their data, to provide more insight into those processes, and others who want to to see transit data or health data become more open, in the service of more civic utility or patient empowerment.
Other people may support publishing more information about the business or performance of government because evidence of fraud, mismanagement or incompetence will support their arguments for shrinking the size of the state. A big tent for open government can mean that libertarians could end up supporting the same bills liberals do.
In the U.S., Govtrack.us has been making government legislative data open, despite the lack of bulk access to Thomas.gov, by “scraping.” There are many people who wish to see campaign finance data open, like the Sunlight Foundation, to show where influence and power lies in the political system. There are many members of civil society, media organizations and startups that are collecting, sharing or using open data, from OpenCorporates to OpenCongress, to Brightscope or ProPublica.
Whether anyone chooses to describe those activities as a movement is up to them — but it is indisputable that 3 years ago, a neutral observer would be hard-pressed to find an open government data platform. Now there are dozens at the national level. What matters more than their existence is what goes onto them, however, and there people have to be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.
While the raw number of open government data platforms around the globe looks set to continue to increase in 2013 at every level of government, advocates should be wary of governments claiming “open government” victories as a result.
First, govts claim to defend “Net freedom” – and Net becomes less free. Then, govts embrace “open data” – and govts become less open. Bingo!
— Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) May 1, 2012
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsSince Morozov sent out that tweet, he’s published a book with a chapter that extends that critique, along with a series of New York Times op-eds, reviews, Slate debates, and a 16,000 word essay in The Baffler that explores the career and thinking of Tim O’Reilly (my publisher). Morozov’s essay catalyzed Annaleen Newitz to paraphrase and link to it at post at iO9, where Tim responded to in a comment.
While his style can distract and detract from his work — and his behavior on Twitter can be fairly characterized as contemptuous at times — the issues Morozov raises around technology and philosophy are important and deserve to be directly engaged by open government advocates, as John Wilbanks suggests.
@ramez If you remove the personal attack, it’s a very valuable essay. He makes terrific points about the abuse of rhetoric.
— Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) April 3, 2013
— Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) April 3, 2013
That’s happening, slowly. Sunlight Foundation policy director John Wonderlich has also responded, quoting Morozov’s recommendations to reflect out how he might specific uses of technology that support open government. Wilbanks himself has written one of the most effective (short) responses to date:
One of the reasons I do “open” work is that I think, in the sciences, it’s a philosophical approach that is more likely to lead to that epistemic transformation. If we have more data available about a scientific problem like climate change, or cancer, then the odds of the algorithms figuring something out that is “true” but incomprehensible to us humans go up. Sam Arbesman has written about this nicely both in his book the Half Life of Facts and in another recent Slate article.
I work for “open” not because “open” solves a specific scientific problem, but because it increases the overall probability of success in sensorism-driven science. Even if the odds of success themselves don’t change, increasing the sample size of attempts will increase the net number of successes. I have philosophical reasons for liking open as well, and those clearly cause me cognitive bias on the topic, but I deeply believe that the greatest value in open science is precisely the increased sample size of those looking.
I also tend to think there’s a truly, deeply political element to enabling access to knowledge and science. I don’t think it’s openwashing (and you should read this paper recommended by Morozov on the topic) to say that letting individuals read science can have a real political impact.
Morozov’s critique of “openwashing” isn’t specious, though it’s fair to question his depiction of the history of open source and free software and an absence of balance in his consideration of various open government efforts. Civil society and media must be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.
On that count, Wonderlich wrote about the “missing open data policy” that every government that has stood up or will stand up an open data platform could benefit from reading:
Most newly implemented open data policies, much like the Open Government Directive, are announced along alongside a package of newly released datasets, and often new data portals, like Data.gov. In a sense, these pieces have become the standard parts of the government data transparency structure. There’s a policy that says data should generally be open and usefully released, a central site for accessing it, some set of new data, and perhaps a few apps that demonstrate the data’s value.
Unfortunately, this is not the anatomy of an open government. Instead, this is the anatomy of the popular open government data initiatives that are currently in favor. Governments have learned to say that data will be open, provide a place to find it, release some selected datasets, and point to its reuse.
This goes to the concerns of traditional advocates working for good government, as explored in a excellent research paper by Yu and Robinson on the ambiguity of open government and open data, along with the broader discussion you’ll find in civil society in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership, where this dynamic was the subject of much concern — and not just in the Canadian or United Kingdom context. The work exploring this dynamic by Nathaniel Heller at Global Integrity is instructive.
As I’ve written before (unrepentant self-plagiarism alert), standing up open data platforms and publishing data sets regarding services is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society, particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society.
Socrata, a venture-capital backed startup whose technology powers the open data platforms of several city, state and federal governments, including Kenya and the United States, is also part of this ecosystem and indisputably has “skin in the game.”
That said, the insights that Kevin Merritt, the founder of Socrata, shared in post on reinventing government are worth considering:
An open Government strategy needs to include Open Data as a component of enabling transparency and engaging citizens. However, Open Government is also about a commitment to open public meetings; releasing public information in all its forms, if not proactively at least in a timely fashion; engaging the public in decision making; and it is also a general mindset, backed up by clear policy, that citizens need to be empowered with information and a voice so they can hold their government accountable.
At the same time, a good Open Data strategy should support Open Government goals, by making structured data that relates to accountability and ethics like spending data, contracts, staff salaries, elections, political contributions, program effectiveness…etc. available in machine- and human-readable formats.
The open data strategy advanced by the White House and 10 Downing Street has not embraced releasing all of those data types, although the Obama administration did follow through on the President’s promise to launch Ethics.gov.
The Obama administration has come under heavy criticism for the quality of its transparency efforts from watchdogs, political opponents and media. It’s fair to say that this White House has advanced an unprecedented effort to open up government information while it has much more of mixed record on transparency and accountability, particularly with respect to national security and a culture of secrecy around the surveillance state.
Open government advocates assert that the transparency that President Obama promised has not been delivered, as Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, and Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in the Washington Post. In fact, the current administration’s open data initiatives are one of the bright spots its transparency record — and that’s in the context of real data quality and cultural issues that need to be addressed to match the rhetoric of the past four years.
“Government transparency is not the same as data that can be called via an API,” said Virginia Carlson, former president of the Metro Chicago Information Center. “I think the ‘New Tech’ world forgets that — open data is a political process first and foremost, and a technology problem second.”
If we look at what’s happening with open government in Chicago, a similar dynamic seems to have emerged, as the city methodically works to release high quality open data related to services, performance or lobbying but is more resistant to media organizations pushing for more access to data about the Mayor’s negotiations or electronic communications, the traditional targets of open government advocacy. This tension was explored quite well in an article by WBEZ on the people behind Chicago’s government 2.0 efforts.
In the United States, there is a sizable group of people that believe that data created using public funds should in turn be made available to the public — and that the Internet is a highly effective place to make such data available. Such thinking extends to open access to research or public sector code, too.
As those policy decisions are implemented, asking hard questions about data quality, use, licenses, outcomes and cost is both important and useful, particularly given that motivations and context will differ from country to country and from industry to civil society.
Who benefits and how? What existing entities are affected? Should all public data be subject to FOIA? If so, under what timelines and conditions? Should commercial entities that create or derive economic value from data pay for bulk access? What about licensing? If government goes digital, how can the poor, disabled or technically illiterate be given access and voice as well? (Answers to some of these questions are in the Sunlight Foundation’s principles of open government data, which were based on the recommendatations of an earlier working group.)
In the United Kingdom, there are also concerns that the current administrations “open data agenda” obscures a push towards privatization of public services should be more prominent in public debates, a dynamic that Morozov recently explored in the opinion pages of the New York Times. My colleague, Nat Torkington, highlighted the needs for a discussion about which services should be provided by government at Radar back in 2010:
Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.
Whether one agrees with the side of the argument that supports investment or the other that is looking for cost-savings — or both — is something that people of democratic societies will need to debate and decide for themselves, along with the size and role of government. The politics can’t be abstracted away.
I don’t think that many open government advocates are blind to the ideologies involved, including the goals of libertarians, nor that the “open dystopia” that Newitz described at iO9 is a particularly likely outcome.
That said, given the stakes, these policies deserve to be the subject of debate in every nation whose leaders are putting them forward. We’ve never had better tools for debate, discussion and collective action. Let’s use them.
In an age where setting up a livestream to the Web and the rest of the networked world is as easy as holding up a smartphone and making a few taps, the United States Supreme Court appears more uniformly opposed to adding cameras in the courtroom than ever.
The OpenGov Hub has similarities to incubators and accelerators, in terms of physically housing different organizations in one location, but focuses on scaling open government and building community, as opposed to scaling a startup and building a business.
Samantha Power, special assistant to President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the White House, spoke about the Hub, the Open Government Partnership, which she was at the heart of starting — and the broader importance of why “open government” is important to everyday citizens: improving lives and delivering results.
A video I recorded at the event, embedded below, captured her talk. Afterwards, I’ve posted text of her remarks, lightly edited for clarity. The emphases are mine.
“I’m jealous. It just feels cool. It feels like you’d come up with lots of ideas if you worked here. My office doesn’t feel quite like this, but we did hatch, collaboratively, the Open Government Partnership.
I’ll just say a few things, mainly just to applaud this and to say how exciting it is.
The White House is a couple blocks in one direction, the State Department is another couple blocks in another, and there are a gazillion departments and agencies around who would really benefit from the infusion of energy and insight that you all bring to bear every day to your work.
President Obama started his first term issuing this Open Government Memorandum and it really did set the tone for the administration, and it does signal what a priority this was to him.
We are now on the verge of starting a second term and everybody in the administration is working to think through how does this manifest itself in the second term, the last term. You don’t get a chance after this next four years to do it again. We’re all very aware of that and we’re going to benefit from the ideas that you have.
Just to give you an indicator of what OGP has come to mean to the President — and this was catalyzed in a speech that he gave before the UN General Assembly. Those speeches are a kind of ‘State of the Union’ for foreign policy, and he chose to use that speech in year two of his presidency to talk about the fact that the old divisions, the old way of thinking of North and South, East and West, have been overtaken by open and closed and scales of openness, degrees of openness.
He challenged the countries there, the leaders, the peoples, to come back with ideas for how we could achieve more transparency, fight corruption, harness new technologies for innovation, and empower citizens. And that gave rise to this brainstorm, which in turn gave rise to this OpenGovHub, with this new leadership. We’re very, very excited about this next phrase of OGP’s growth.
This, I think in many ways, is President Obama’s signature governance initiative, and it’s something he takes extremely seriously. In bilateral meetings with foreign heads of state he often brings this up, spontaneously, if we have failed, somehow, to get it into the talking points. It is something he’s talked to Prime Minister Cameron about in the U.K. The Indonesians of course are the co-chairs now, so it’s not longer his.
The trip to Burma, which just occurred, was a very moving trip. I got to be a part of that. It was amazing to see President Barack Hussein Obama at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, maybe the next leader of that country, talking about open government, and the Open Government Partnership, and the Burmese coming out on that trip and committing to be part of the Open Government Partnership by 2015, and articulating each of the milestones for budget transparency, on disclosure for public officials, on civil liberties, freedom of information.
So [using] OGP, and this open government conversation, as a hook to make progress on issues that this stage of Burma’s long journey it’s critical that they make progress on. So I just wanted to convey how much this really matters to him personally.
Second, and you talking about this earlier today, the challenge of conversions still exists, with other governments, with officials, in my own government, and certainly with citizens and other groups around the world who don’t self-identify within the space. And so, I think, thinking through the ways in which platforms like this one that pull together success stories and ways in which citizens have concretely benefitted, this is what it’s all about.
It’s not about the abstraction about ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘promoting transparency’ or ‘harnessing innovation’ — it’s about ‘are the kids getting the textbooks they’re supposed to get’ or does transparency provide a window into whether resources are going where they’re supposed to go and, to the degree to which that window exists, are citizens aware and benefiting from the data and that information such that they can hold their governments accountable. And then, does the government care that citizens care that those discrepancies exist?
That’s ultimately what this is about, and, I think, the more that we have concrete examples of real children, of real hospitals, real polluted water and clean water, real cost savings, in administrative budget terms, the more success we’re going to have in bringing new people into this community — and I confess, I was not one. Jeremy Weinstein used to come and knock on my door, and say, ‘What is this, open government?’ and I didn’t understand it.
Then, with a few examples, I said, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do under another rubric, you know, for a very long time.” This creates the possibility for another kind of conversation.
Sometimes, democracy and human rights, issues like that, can get other governments on their heels. Open government creates the opportunity for conversations that sometimes doesn’t exist.
The last thing I’d say is, just to underscore a data point that’s been made, but in some sense, art imitates life, like this space imitates life. This space itself seems to be kind of predicated on the logic of open government — open idea sharing, information sharing, it’s great.
Our little OGP experiment, I think, is one that a lot of these groups are using. We benefited from what most of these groups and most of you have been doing, again, for a very long time, which is to recognize that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to hear and learn from people who are out in the field. We have ideas and can be very abstract.
What the civil society partners have brought to the Open Government Partnership is just one example of what you’re bringing to people’s lives every day. You have to interface with people [to get] the ability to track whether policies are working. J
Just as the partnership itself has this originality to it, of being multi-stakeholder and having civil society and governments at the table, figuring out what we’re doing, so too our criteria, whether a country is or isn’t eligible, is the product of NGO data, or academic frameworks, there just has to be cross-pollination.
Again, OGP is just one version of this, but I think the more that our communities are talking to one another, and certainly, speaking from the government perspective now, just sucking in the work and the insights that you all bring to bear, the better off real people are going to be in the world, and the more likely those kids are going to be to get those textbooks.
Thanks for having me.”
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has released statistics on its first 16 months since its historic launch in New York City, collected together in the infographic embedded below. This week, Open government leaders are meeting in Chile to discuss the formal addition of Argentina to the partnership and the national plans that Latin American countries have pledged to implement. [Livestream] Álvaro Ramirez Alujas, Founder of the Group of Investigation in Government, Administration and Public Policy (GIGAPP), assisted GOP with an analysis of these OPG action plans. Alujas found that:
- 46% are linked to commitments on public integrity
- 27% are related to the improvement of public services
- 14% are linked to more effectively managing public resources and
- 12% are related to increasing accountability and corporate responsibility.
— CiudadanoInteligente (@ciudadanoi) January 10, 2013
The infographic is also available en Español:
Accountability for accountability
As we head into 2013, it’s worth reiterating a point I made last summer in a post on oversight of the Open Government Partnership:
There will be inevitable diplomatic challenges for OGP, from South Africa’s proposed secrecy law to Russia’s membership. Given that context, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership — from the government co-chairs in Brazil and the United Kingdom to the leaders of participating countries to the members of civil society that have been given a seat at the table — will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made on all of these fronts.
If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: they must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they’ll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.
The post-industrial future of journalism is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. The same trends changing journalism and society have the potential to create significant social change throughout the African continent, as states moves from conditions of information scarcity to abundance.
That reality was clear on my recent trip to Africa, where I had the opportunity to interview Justin Arenstein at length during my visit to Zanzibar. Arenstein is building the capacity of African media to practice data-driven journalism, a task that has taken on new importance as the digital disruption that has permanently altered how we discover, read, share and participate in news.
The 2011 Knight News Challenge winners illustrated data’s ascendance in media and government, with platforms for data journalism and civic connections dominating the field.
As I wrote last September, the projects that the Knight Foundation has chosen to fund over the last two years are notable examples of working on stuff that matters: they represent collective investments in digital civic infrastructure.
The first winners of the African News Innovation Challenge, which concluded this winter, look set to extend that investment throughout the continent of Africa.
“Africa’s media face some serious challenges, and each of our winners tries to solve a real-world problem that journalists are grappling with. This includes the public’s growing concern about the manipulation and accuracy of online content, plus concerns around the security of communications and of whistleblowers or journalistic sources,” wrote Arenstein on the News Challenge blog.
While the twenty 2012 winners include investigative journalism tools and whistleblower security, there’s also a focus on citizen engagement, digitization and making public data actionable. To put it another way, the “news innovation” that’s being funded on both continents isn’t just gathering and disseminating information: it’s now generating data and putting it to work in the service of the needs of residents or the benefit of society.
“The other major theme evident in many of the 500 entries to ANIC is the realisation that the media needs better ways to engage with audiences,” wrote Arenstein. “Many of our winners try tackle this, with projects ranging from mobile apps to mobilise citizens against corruption, to improved infographics to better explain complex issues, to completely new platforms for beaming content into buses and taxis, or even using drone aircraft to get cameras to isolated communities.”
In the first half of our interview, published last year at Radar, Arenstein talked about Hacks/Hackers, and expanding the capacity of data journalism. In the second half, below, we talk about his work at African Media Initiative (AMI), the role of open source in civic media, and how an unconference model for convening people is relevant to innovation.
What have you accomplished at the AMI to date?
Justin Arenstein: The AMI has been going on for just over three years. It’s a fairly young organization, and I’ve been embedded now for about 18 months. The major deliverables and the major successes so far have been:
- A $1 million African News Innovation Challenge, which was modeled fairly closely on the Knight Challenge, but a different state of intended outputs.
- A network of Hacks/Hackers chapters across the continent.
- A number of technology support or technology development initiatives. Little pilot projects, invariably newsroom-based.
The idea is that we test ideas that are allowed to fail. We fund them in newsrooms and they’re driven by newsrooms. We match them up with technologists. We try and lower the barrier for companies to start experimenting and try and minimize risk as much as possible for them. We’ve launched a couple of slightly larger funds for helping to scale some of these ideas. We’ve just started work on a social venture or a VC fund as well.
You mentioned different outputs in the News Challenge. What does that mean?
Justin Arenstein: Africa hasn’t had the five-year kind of evolutionary growth that the Knight News Challenge has had in the U.S. What the News Challenge has done in the U.S. is effectively grown an ecosystem where newsrooms started to grapple with and accepted the reality that they have to innovate. They have to experiment. Digital is core to the way that they’re not only pushing news out but to the way that they produce it and the way that they process it.
We haven’t had any of that evolution yet in Africa. When you think about digital news in African media, they think you’re speaking about social media or a website. We’re almost right back at where the News Challenge started originally. At the moment, what we’re trying to do is raise sensitivity to the fact that there are far more efficient ways of gathering, ingesting, processing and then publishing digital content — and building tools that are specifically suited for the African environment.
There are bandwidth issues. There are issues around literacy, language use and also, in some cases, very different traditions of producing news. The output of what would be considered news in Africa might not be considered news product in some Western markets. We’re trying to develop products to deal with those gaps in the ecosystem.
What were the most promising News Challenge entrants that actually relate to those outputs?
Justin Arenstein: Some of the projects that we thought were particularly strong or apt amongst the African News Challenge finalists included more efficient or more integrated ways to manage workflow. If you look at many of the workflow software suites in the north, they’re, by African standards, completely unaffordable. As a result, there hasn’t been any systemic way that media down here produced news, which means that there’s virtually no way that they are storing and managing content for repackaging and for multi-platform publishing.
We’re looking at ways of not reinventing a CMS [content management system], but actually managing and streamlining workflow from ingesting reporting all the way to publishing.
Some of the biggest blogs in the world are running on WordPress for a CMS. Why not use that where needed?
Justin Arenstein: I think I may have I misspoken by saying “content management systems.” I’m referring to managing, gathering and storing old news, the production and the writing of new content, a three or four phase editing process, and then publishing across multiple platforms. Ingesting creative design, layout, and making packages into podcasting or radio formats, and then publishing into things like Drupal or WordPress.
There have been attempts to take existing CMS systems like Drupal and turn it into a broader, more ambitious workflow management tool. We haven’t seen very many successful ones. A lot of the kinds of media that we work with are effectively offline media, so these have been very lightweight applications.
The one thing that we have focused on is trying to “future-proof” it, to some extent, by building a lot of meta tagging and data management tools into these new products. That’s because we’re also trying to position a lot of the media partners we’re working with to be able to think about their businesses as data or content-driven businesses, as opposed to producing newspapers or manufacturing businesses. This seems to be working well in some early pilots we’ve been doing in Kenya.
What were your takeaways from the Tech Camp? Was a hybrid unconference a good model for the News Challenge?
Justin Arenstein: A big goal that we think we’ve achieved was to try and build a community of use. We put people together. We deliberately took them to an exotic location, far away from a town or location, where they’re effectively held hostage in a hotel. We built in as much free time as possible, with many opportunities to socialize, so that they start creating bonds. Right from the beginning, we did a “speed dating” kind of thing. There’s been very few presentations — in fact, there was only one PowerPoint in five days. The rest of the time, it’s actually the participants teaching each other.
We brought in some additional technology experts or facilitators, but they were handpicked largely from previous challenges to share the experience of going through a similar process and to point people to existing resources that they might not be aware of. That seems to have worked very well.
On the sidelines of the Tech Camp, we’ve seen additional collaborations happen for which people are not asking for funding. It just makes logical sense. We’ve already seen some of the initial fruits of that: three of the applicants actually partnered and merged their applications. We’ve seen a workflow editorial CMS project partner up with an ad booking and production management system, to create a more holistic suite. They’re still building as two separate teams, but they’re now sharing standards and they’re building them as modular products that could be sold as a broader product suite.
The Knight News Challenge has stimulated the creation of many open source tools. Is any of that code being re-used?
Justin Arenstein: We’ve tried to tap into quite a few of them. Some of the more recent tools are transferable. I think there was grand realization that people weren’t able to deliver on their promises — and where they did deliver on tools, there wasn’t documentation. The code was quite messy. They weren’t really robust. Often, applications were written for specific local markets or data requirements that didn’t transfer. You actually effectively had to rebuild them. We have been able to re-purpose DocumentCloud and some other tools.
I think we’ve learned from that process. What we’re trying to do with our News Challenge is to workshop finalists quite aggressively before they put in their final proposals.
Firstly, make sure that they’re being realistic, that they’re not unnecessarily building components, or wasting money and energy on building components for their project that are not unique, not revolutionary or innovative. They should try and almost “plug and play” with what already exists in the ecosystem, and then concentrate on building the new extensions, the real kind of innovations. We’re trying to improve on the Knight model.
Secondly, once the grantees actually get money, it comes in a tranche format so they agree to an implementation plan. They get cash, in fairly small grants by Knight standards. The maximum is $100,000. In addition, they get engineering or programming support from external developers that are on our payroll, working out of our labs. We’ve got a civic lab running out of Kenya and partners, such as Google.
Thirdly, they get business mentorship support from some leading commercial business consultants. These aren’t nonprofit types. These are people who are already advising some of the largest media companies in the world.
The idea is that, through that process, we’re hopefully going to arrive at a more realistic set of projects that have either sustainable revenue models and scaling plans, from the beginning, or built-in mechanisms for assessments, reporting back and learning, if they’re designed purely as experiments.
We’re not certain if it’s going to work. It’s an experiment. On the basis of the Tech Camp that we’ve gone through, it seems to have worked very well. We’ve seen people abandon what were, we thought, overly ambitious technology plans and rather matched up or partnered with existing technologists. They will still achieve their goals but do so in a more streamlined, agile manner by re-purposing existing tech.
Editors’s Note: This interview is part of an ongoing series at the O’Reilly Radar on the people, tools and techniques driving data journalism.
He was straightforward in his assessment: he said that there’s “at best a one in five chance” that the partnership will achieve its full potential. Rajani also offered a fundamental metric for assessing the success of OGP: “not how many countries sign on to the open government declaration, but how many commitments are delivered in countries, and how many citizens experience concrete improvements in their lives.”
In that vein, he highlighted two projects in Africa that haven’t delivered upon their promise:
Even where governments and civil society are willing, realizing the full promise of OGP commitments is not easy; executing meaningful programs is very difficult. In Kenya the Open Data portal makes an impressive level of data public for the first time, but few use it. In Tanzania, the project to enable citizens to report broken water points through their mobile phones, a project that was featured in the OGP launch film and that my organization supported, has largely failed, because people simply did not believe reporting data would make a difference. Overall, if we are honest, of the 300 or so commitments made in the OGP plans so far, the glass is more empty than full. These are still early days, but the window to learn lessons and get our act together is closing fast.
That said, Rajani remains fundamentally optimistic about the world’s movement towards open government:
“I believe that the idea of open government is as fundamental as some of our greatest achievements of the last century, such as that of the equality of men and women and equality of the races; indeed underlying them all is the deep human impulse for freedom and dignity. That is why, despite my concern about the prospects of the OGP, I am optimistic. Open government is so fundamental to being human that the arc of human history, driven by the everyday actions millions of people across the world, will inevitably bend towards openness. The challenge before us, and awesome privilege, is whether we muster the humility and good sense to be part of that movement.”
I interviewed Rajani earlier this year. If you’re interested in how civil society plays a central role in holding governments accountable, do watch:
Mike Bracken, U.K. government’s executive director of digital, talks with the Wall Street Journal about how new technologies and approaches can reduce one of the biggest issues in government IT: expensive government IT projects that run long.