Half empty or half full? Mixed reactions to Pew research on open data and open government

Yesterday, I wrote up 15 key insights from the Pew Internet and Life Project’s new research on the American public’s attitude towards open data and open government. If you missed it, what people think about government data and the potential impact of releasing it is heavily influenced by the prevailing low trust in government and their politics.

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Media coverage of the survey reflected the skepticism of the reporters (“Most Americans don’t think government transparency matters a damn“) or of the public (“Who cares about open data” and “Americans not impressed by open government initiatives“). This photo by Pete Souza below might be an apt image for this feeling:

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Other stories pulled out individual elements of the research (“Open data on criminals and teachers is a-okay, say most US citizens” or mixed results (“People Like U.S. Open Data Initiatives, But Think Government Could Do More” and “Sorry, open data: Americans just aren’t that into you“) or general doubts about an unfamiliar topic (“Many Americans Doubt Government Open Data Efforts“). At least one editor’s headline suggested that the results were an indictment of everything government does online: (“Americans view government’s online services and public data sharing as a resounding ‘meh’.) Meh, indeed.

As usual, keep a salt shaker handy as you browse the headlines and read the original source. The research itself is more nuanced than those headlines suggest, as my interview with the lead researcher on the survey, John Horrigan, hopefully made clear.

Over at TechPresident, editor-in-chief Micah Sifry saw a glass half full:

  • Digging deeper into the Pew report, it’s interesting to find that beyond the “ardent optimists” (17% of adults) who embrace the benefit of open government data and use it often, and the “committed cynics” (20%) who use online government resources but think they aren’t improving government performance much, there’s a big group of “buoyant bystanders” (27%) who like the idea that open data can improve government’s performance but themselves aren’t using the internet much to engage with government. (Heads up Kate Krontiris, who’s been studying the “interested bystander.”)
  • It’s not clear how much of the bystander problem is also an access problem. According to a different new analysis done by the Pew Research Center, about five million American households with school-age children–nearly one in five–do not have high-speed internet access at home. This “broadband gap” is worst among households with incomes under $50,000 a year.

Reaction from foundations that have advocated, funded or otherwise supported open government data efforts went deeper. Writing for the Sunlight Foundation, communications director Gabriela Schneider saw the results from the survey in a rosy (sun)light, seeing public optimism about open government and open data.

People are optimistic that open data initiatives can make government more accountable. But, many surveyed by Pew are less sure open data will improve government performance. Relatedly, Americans have not quite engaged very deeply with government data to monitor performance, so it remains to be seen if changes in engagement will affect public attitudes.

That’s something we at Sunlight hope to positively affect, particularly as we make new inroads in setting new standards for how the federal government discloses its work online. And as Americans shift their attention away from Congress and more toward their own backyards, we know our newly expanded work as part of the What Works Cities initiative will better engage the public, make government more effective and improve people’s lives.

Jonathan Sotsky, director of strategy and assessment for the Knight Foundation, saw a trust conundrum for government in the results:

Undoubtedly, a greater focus is needed on explaining to the public how increasing the accessibility and utility of government data can drive accountability, improve government service delivery and even provide the grist for new startup businesses. The short-term conundrum government data initiatives face is that while they ultimately seek to increase government trustworthiness, they may struggle to gain structure because the present lack of trust in government undermines their perceived impact.

Steven Clift, the founder of e-democracy.org, views this survey as a wakeup call for open data advocates.

One reason I love services like CityGram, GovDelivery, etc. is that they deliver government information (often in a timely way) to the public based on their preferences/subscriptions. As someone who worked in “e-government” for the State of Minnesota, I think most people just want the “information” that matters to them and the public has no particular attachment to the idea of “open data” allowing third parties to innovate or make this data available. I view this survey as a huge wake up call to #opengov advocates on the #opendata side that the field needs to provide far more useful stuff to the general public and care a lot more about outreach and marketing to reach people with the good stuff already available.

Mark Headd, former chief data officer for the City of Philadelphia and current developer evangelist for Accela software, saw the results as a huge opportunity to win hearts and minds:

The modern open data and civic hacking movements were largely born out of the experience of cities. Washington DC, New York City and Chicago were among the first governments to actively recruit outside software developers to build solutions on top of their open data. And the first governments to partner with Code for America – and the majority over the life of the organization’s history – have been cities.

How do school closings impact individual neighborhoods? How do construction permit approvals change the character of communities? How is green space distributed across neighborhoods in a city? Where are vacant properties in a neighborhood – who owns them and are there opportunities for reuse?

These are all the kinds of questions we need people living and working in neighborhoods to help us answer. And we need more open data from local governments to do this.

If you see other blog posts or media coverage that’s not linked above, please let me know. I storified some reactions on Twitter but I’m certain that I missed conversations or opinions.

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There are two additional insights from Pew that I didn’t write about yesterday that are worth keeping in mind with respect to how how Americans are thinking about the release of public data back to the public. First, it’s unclear whether the public realizes they’re using apps and services built upon government data, despite sizable majorities doing so.

Second, John Horrigan told me that survey respondents universally are not simply asking for governments to make the data easier to understand so that they can figure out what I want to figure out: what people really want is intermediaries to help them make sense of the data.

“We saw a fair number of people pleading in comments for better apps to make the data make sense,” said Horrigan. “When they went online, they couldn’t get budget data to work. When the found traffic data, couldn’t make it work. There were comments on both sides of the ledger. Those that think government did an ok job wish they did this. Those that thin government is doing a horrible job also wish they did this.”

This is the opportunity that Headd referred to, and the reason that data journalism is the critical capacity that democratic governments which genuinely want to see returns on accountability and transparency must ensure can flourish in civil society.

If a Republican is elected as the next President of the United States, we’ll see if public views shift on other fronts.

USASpending.gov addresses some data issues, adds Github issues tracker for feedback

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On April 1st, some reporters, open government advocates and people in industry may have hoped that a new redesign of USASpending.gov, the flagship financial transparency website of the United States government, was just a poorly conceived April Fool’s joke. Unfortunately, an official statement about the USASpending.gov redesign at the U.S. Treasury’s blog confirmed that the redesign was real. Analysts, media and businesses that rely on the contracting data on the site were loudly decried the decreased functionality of USASpending.gov.

A week later, there’s a still no evidence of deliberate intent on the part of Treasury not to publish accurate spending data or break the tool, despite headlines about rolling back transparency. Rather, it looks more likely that there were been a number of mistakes or even unavoidable errors made in the transitioning the site and data from a bankrupt federal contractor. There was certainly poor communication with the business community and advocates who use the site, a reality that Luke Fretwell helpfully suggested at Govfresh that other government agencies work to avoid next time.

Today, as Fretwell first reported, the federal government launched a new repository for tracking issues on USASpending.gov on Github, the social coding site that’s become an increasingly important platform for 18F, which committed to developing free and open source software by default last year.

In an email to the White House’s open government Google Group, Corinna Zarek, the senior advisor for open government in the Obama administration, followed up on earlier concerns about the redesign:

The USAspending team has been working to improve the usability of the site and has made some great strides to make it easier for average citizens to navigate information. But at the same time, we all understand that some of our expert users (like a lot of you) seek more technical information and the team is striving to meet your needs as well.

This is definitely a work in progress so please keep working with the team as it iterates on the best ways to improve function of the site while maintaining the content you seek. Your initial comments have been really helpful and the USAspending team is already working to address some of them.

Zarek also said that several of the problems with data that people have reported been addressed, including the capacity to download larger data sets and define specific dates in search, and asked for more feedback.

Specifically, this week the team addressed data export issues to allow the ability to specify date ranges to download data, added the bulk file format API, and modified the download capability so larger datasets can be downloaded. Additionally, data archives are being added continually. This week, they loaded the 2014 and 2015 delta files that show the new transactions in the last month. You can keep track of the ongoing improvements on the “What’s new” page.

Please keep sharing your feedback and continue working with the USAspending team as it makes improvements to the site. You can do this through the site’s contact page or on the new Github page where you can report issues and track them in the open.

If you find bugs, let the feds know about them on Github so that everyone can see the issues and how they’re addressed. As Mollie Walker reported for FierceGovernmentIT, there’s still missing functionality yet to be restored.

[Image Credit: Govfresh, via USASpending.gov]

National Security Archive finds 40% E-FOIA compliance rate in federal government agencies

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For Sunshine Week 2015, the National Security Archive​ conducted an audit of how well 165 federal government agencies in the United States of America comply with the E-FOIA Act of 1996. They found that only 67 of them had online libraries that were regularly updated with a significant number of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. The criteria for the 165 agencies were that they had to have a chief Freedom of Information Officer and components that handled more than 500 FOIA requests annually.

Almost a decade after the E-FOIA Act, that’s about a 40% compliance rate. I wonder if the next U.S. Attorney General or the next presidential administration will make improving on this poor performance priority. It’s important for The United States Department of Justice​ to not only lead by example but push agencies into the 21st century when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act.

It would certainly help if Congress passed FOIA reform.

On that count, the Archive highlights a relevant issue in the current House and Senate FOIA reform bills in Congress: the FOIA statute states that documents that are “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests” should be published electronic reading rooms:

“The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy defines these records as “frequently requested records… or those which have been released three or more times to FOIA requesters.” Of course, it is time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breach of the law. Troublingly, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language that codifies the instructions from the Department of Justice.

The National Security Archive believes the addition of this “three or more times” language actually harms the intent of the Freedom of Information Act as it will give agencies an easy excuse (“not requested three times yet!”) not to proactively post documents that agency FOIA offices have already spent time, money, and energy processing. We have formally suggested alternate language requiring that agencies generally post “all records, regardless of form or format that have been released in response to a FOIA request.”

This is a point that Members of Congress should think through carefully as they take another swing at reform. As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, FOIA requests that industry make are an important demand signal to show where data with economic value lies. (It’s also where the public interest tends to lie, with respect to FOIA requests from the media.)

While it’s true that it would take time and resources to build and maintain a system that tracks such requests by industry, there should already be a money trail from the fees paid to the agency. If FOIA reform leads to modernizing how it’s implemented, perhaps tying FOIA.gov to Data.gov might finally take place. The datasets are the subject of the most FOIA requests are the ones that should be prioritized for proactive disclosure online.

Adding a component that identifies which data sets are frequently requested, particularly periodically, should be a priority across the board for any administration that seeks to “manage information as an asset.” Adding the volume and periodicity of requests to the expanding national enterprise data inventory might naturally follow. It’s worth noting, too, that reform of the FOIA statute may not be necessary to achieve this end, if the 18F team working on modernizing FOIA software worked on it.

Could Hillary Clinton’s email account galvanize Congress to pass FOIA reform?

IMG_1992It’d be swell if the flap over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal email account catalyzed the passage of Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress. Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, laid out a strong case in the Guardian today for why both sides of the aisle should support reform:

Instead of both parties competing over who can be more secretive, like they did in the 2012 presidential campaign, this is also a great opportunity for 2016 presidential candidates to debate about who can deliver the most transparent White House. That doesn’t mean just voluntarily releasing emails you want the public to see – though that’s a start – but implementing lasting policy changes and laws that will change the trajectory of US secrecy law, which has grown out of control in the past decade.

The challenge is that the interests that didn’t want that reform to happen, both inside and outside of government, aren’t going to go away, from the financial industry to government agencies.

As readers no doubt recall, FOIA reform bills passed the U.S. Senate and House *unanimously* last year and yet failed to become law.

The pushback is already (quietly) happening in Congress, as reported last week in E&E publishing:

“I think a number of the agencies are probably concerned. This is the impression that I get: They think that you shouldn’t have this presumption that things should be revealed. In other words, there should be more of a screening process,” [Representative Elijah] Cummings said. “It’s hard for them to just come outright and say, ‘No, we don’t like that, we’re not going to do it.’ But I get that impression that they don’t feel that people need to have access to every record.”

Asked whether he or other lawmakers have heard from agencies regarding his bill, Cummings said their concerns about FOIA are more subtly made to Congress.

“In general, in general. But I don’t think it’s a big push, but that’s just the impression I get,” said the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

That doesn’t mean that reform won’t happen, or that it couldn’t be a political winner for members of both parties, particularly Republican Senators who aspire to higher office. This year, editorial boards are more outspoken on the issue and transparency could, once again, be a campaign issue. Here’s hoping that’s enough to lead to Congress enacting FOIA reform the country needs, not a watered down bill.

In the wake of scandal, the State of Oregon seeks to restore trust through publishing public records

or-state-sealIn a fascinating turn of events, rainy Oregon is embracing sunlight online after a scandal that led to the resignation of its governor. After governor Kate Brown was sworn in as the 38th governor of the state of Oregon, replacing fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, her administration chose to try to restore public trust by not only posting public records requests online but including the authors, status and a downloadable link to the records themselves, once fulfilled. The records only go back to January 15th, 2015, with a note that requests made prior to that date are “still being processed.”

The City of Oakland’s public records system, built by Code for America, does the same thing but this appears to set a new bar for state government that’s unmatched in the United States of America. As has been reported elsewhere, exemptions to Oregon’s public records laws mean that this website will be no panacea, but it looks like progress from 3000 miles away in snowy Cambridge.

As Kirk Johnson reported for the New York Times, Brown’s record includes open government work while she was a state legislator, where, as Senate Majority Leader, she worked to reform Oregon’s ethics law and helped to enact legislation that created an online campaign finance database.

“…throughout my 24 years in public service, I have also sought to promote transparency and trust in government, working to build confidence that our public dollars are spent wisely,” she said, in her inaugural speech.

Later in her remarks, Governor Brown said that “we must seize this moment to work across party lines to restore the public’s trust. That means passing meaningful legislation that strengthens the capacity and independence of the Government Ethics Commission. We also must strengthen laws to ensure timely release of public documents.”

On that count, it’s notable that two of the records requests that have been posted for download involve Cynthia Hayes, the fiancee of former Governor Kitzhaber who was at the center of the scandals that led to his resignation. One comes from Margaret Olney, who is quite likely the same Margaret Olney who served in Oregon’s Department of Justice. The other requester was Alejandra Lazo, who co-authored a Wall Street Journal article on former Governor Kitzhaber’s resignation. In an interesting sidenote, the records for both responses were uploaded to Dropbox.

If you know of another state that meet or exceeds this standard for digital transparency, or have experience or feedback regarding the quality or importance of the public records posted by Oregon, please let us know in a comment.

Emily Shaw, the national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, said on Twitter that she has not seen any other state’s public records system exceed this standard of transparency.

As the DATA Act goes up for markup in Senate, will its Recovery.gov model survive?

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There will be a markup for the DATA Act (S.994) in U.S. Senate today. The bill, which passed the House, would standardize federal spending and publish it in a similar way as the Recovery Act, which proved to be a successful test case for open data. A proposed amendment to the DATA Act, however, is facing opposition from the same good government groups that supported its passage in the House of Representatives.

Update: The DATA Act passed markup with the amendment.

The amendment, which removes the “accountability platform” from the legislation, faced criticism from the author of the original bill, Hudson Hollister. Hollister emailed the following comment to Federal News Radio:

“Without the accountability platform, there will be no mechanism for inspectors general to use the newly-standardized federal spending data, combined with public and private data sources, to suss out waste and fraud. If the final version of the bill fails to expand the Recovery Operations Center to cover all federal spending, taxpayers’ interests will be hurt in two ways. First, waste and fraud that could have been illuminated and eliminated will go undetected. Second — and perhaps more important — without any internal government effort to use the newly-standardized spending data for any purpose, there will be no internal pressure to improve the quality of data published on USASpending.gov. We recognize that the accountability platform was removed in order to reduce the bill’s Congressional Budget Office score. We hope that an offset large enough to restore those provisions can be included in the bill at a later stage.”

A coalition of good government groups are calling for the the DATA Act to be passed as introduced, not “as amended,” submitting a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to that effect. (Below.)

DATA Act – Letter of Support to Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee – 11-05-2013

Prospects for the DATA Act’s passage in the Senate do appear improved over last year, where it foundered in committee, but the form it will emerge from today’s markup in is unclear.

Hollister is warning that the removal of the requirement for a data analytics platform from the bill, modeled on Recovery.gov, would be a mistake and lead to same kinds of data quality issues that exist at the SEC.

Citing a study from Columbia Business School which evaluates the state and future of interactive data at the SEC, Hollister says the platform is a key tool for government inspectors general to examine spending data, which then creates an internal incentive to correct errors. Given the reality that “armchair auditors” have yet to emerge in the United Kingdom to look at similar data, improving the capacity of the IGs to find fraud, waste and abuse is critical.

In advocating for retention of the platform (the “accountability hub”), Hollister suggested that its estimated $20 million dollar cost will be more than balanced by the amount of fraud detected.

“Open data is no good unless it’s accurate,” writes Hollister. “The SEC’s experience shows that the only way to generate internal pressure for accurate spending data will be if the federal government is actively using that data.”