The state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded

What’s next for open data in the United States? That was the open question posed at the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) last week, where a panel of industry analysts and experts gathered to discuss the historic open government data … Continue reading

Congress votes to make open government data the default in the United States

On December 21, 2018, the United States House of Representatives voted to enact H.R. 4174, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017, in a historic win for open government in the United States of America.

The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act (AKA the OPEN Government Data Act) is about to become law as a result. This codifies two canonical principles for democracy in the 21st century:

  1. public information should be open by default to the public in a machine-readable format, where such publication doesn’t harm privacy or security
  2. federal agencies should use evidence when they make public policy

For the full backstory on what’s in the bill and how it came to pass, read yesterday’s feature.

It’s worth noting that last minute objection did result in two amendments that the Senate had to act upon. Thankfully, on Saturday, December 22nd, the Senate acted, passing the resolution required to send the bill onwards to the president’s desk.

Here’s what changed: First, the text of Title I was amended so that it only applied to CFO Act agencies, not the Federal Reserve or smaller agencies. Title II (the Open Government Act) still applies to all federal agencies.

Second, there was a carve out in Title I “for data that does not concern monetary policy,” which relates to the Federal Reserve, among others.

 

While the shift weakened the first title of the bill a bit, this was still a historic moment: Congress has passed a law to make open data part of of the US Code.

While the United States is not the first or even the second democracy to pass an open data law –  France and  Germany have that distinction – this is a welcome advance, codifying the open government data policies, practices, roles and websites (looking at you, Data.gov) that the federal government had adopted over the past decade.

Open government activists, advocates and champions continue to celebrate, online and off.

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“The bipartisan passage of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act is a significant step toward a more efficient, more effective government that uses evidence and data to improve results for the American people,” said Michele Jolin, CEO and co-founder of Results for America, in a statement. “We commend Speaker Ryan, Senator Murray and their bipartisan colleagues in both chambers for advancing legislation that will help build evidence about the federally-funded practices, policies and programs that deliver the best outcomes. By ensuring that each federal agency has an evaluation officer, an evaluation policy and evidence-building plans, we can maximize the impact of public investments.”

“The OPEN Government Data Act will ensure that the federal government releases valuable data sets, follows best practices in data management, and commits to making data available to the public in a non-proprietary and electronic format,” said Daniel Castro, in a statement. “Today’s vote marks a major bipartisan victory for open data. This legislation will generate substantial returns for the public and private sectors alike in the years to come.”

“The passage of the OPEN Government Data Act is a win for the open data community”, said Sarah Joy Hays, Acting Executive Director of the Data Coalition, in a statement. “The Data Coalition has proudly supported this legislation for over three years, along with dozens of other organizations. The bill sets a presumption that all government information should be open data by default: machine-readable and freely-reusable. Ultimately, it will improve the way our government runs and serves its citizens. This would not have been possible without the support of Speaker Paul Ryan (WI-1-R), Senators Patty Murray (WA-D), Brian Schatz (HI-D), Ben Sasse (NE-R), and Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-6-D). Our Coalition urges the President to promptly sign this open data bill into law.”

Congratulations to everyone who has pushed for this outcome for years.

[Image Credit: Sunlight Foundation]

This post has been updated, and corrected: France was ahead of Germany in enacting an open data law.

Senate passes evidence-based policymaking bill, setting up historic win for open government data

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The arc of open government in United States is long, but perhaps it will bend towards transparency and accountability as 2018 comes to a close, in an unlikely moment in our history. After years of dedicated effort by advocates and bipartisan leadership in both houses of Congress, the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act (AKA the OPEN Government Data Act) is about to become law after the United States Senate passed the bill as part of H.R. 4174 on December 19.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) shared the news in a tweet last night:

…followed by Representative Derek Killmer (D-

Here’s Schatz speaking about the bill at a Data Coalition event last winter:

Two steps remain: passage of the bill in the House and President Donald J. Trump signing it into law. Barring a scheduling issue or unexpected change (keep an eye out for shenanigans on the House floor today), the nation is close to a historic codification of two powerful principles:

  1. public information should be open by default to the public in a machine-readable format, where such publication doesn’t harm privacy or security
  2. federal agencies should use evidence to make public policy

Along with making open government data the default in U.S. government and requiring the White House Office of Management and Budget to oversee enterprise data inventories for every agency, the bill would require federal agencies to do the following, as listed in the summary from the Law Library of Congress:

This bill requires departments and agencies identified in the Chief Financial Officers Act to submit annually to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress a plan for identifying and addressing policy questions relevant to the programs, policies, and regulations of such departments and agencies.

The plan must include: (1) a list of policy-relevant questions for developing evidence to support policymaking, and (2) a list of data for facilitating the use of evidence in policymaking.

The OMB shall consolidate such plans into a unified evidence building plan.

The bill establishes an Interagency Council on Evaluation Policy to assist the OMB in supporting government-wide evaluation activities and policies. The bill defines “evaluation” to mean an assessment using systematic data collection and analysis of one or more programs, policies, and organizations intended to assess their effectiveness and efficiency.

Each department or agency shall designate a Chief Evaluation Officer to coordinate evidence-building activities and an official with statistical expertise to advise on statistical policy, techniques, and procedures.

The OMB shall establish an Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building to advise on expanding access to and use of federal data for evidence building.

Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act or the OPEN Government Data Act

This bill requires open government data assets to be published as machine-readable data.

Each agency shall: (1) develop and maintain a comprehensive data inventory for all data assets created by or collected by the agency, and (2) designate a Chief Data Officer who shall be responsible for lifecycle data management and other specified functions.

The bill establishes in the OMB a Chief Data Officer Council for establishing government-wide best practices for the use, protection, dissemination, and generation of data and for promoting data sharing agreements among agencies.

While the United States would not be not the first democracy to pass such a law, it would be a welcome advance, codifying many aspects of the open government data policies that have been developed and promulgated in the federal government over the past decade.

How did open government data get into the US Code?

This was no accident of fate or circumstance: This bill, which was previously passed by the House last month, was sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. It’s an important element of his legislative legacy, and one that can and should earn praise – unlike other aspects of his time with the gavel.

It’s taken years of advocacy and activism by a broad coalition to get here, including the Sunlight Foundation, the EFF, Business Software Alliance, Center for Data Innovation, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, American Library Association, the R Street Institute, among many others, and bipartisan efforts on both sides of the aisle. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) co-sponsored the OGDA in the Senate, with 5 others, and former Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) cosponsored it in House, with 12 others.

That original bill almost made it into law in 2016, when the Senate passed OGDA by unanimous consent, but the House didn’t move it before the end of the 115th Congress. In September 2017, when it was poised to pass Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act., before it was stripped from the final version.

In October 2017, the text of the Open Government Data Act, however, was incorporated into H.R. 4174, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017,

The new bipartisan, bicameral companion legislation was introduced on October 31, 2017 by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to enact the recommendations contained in the final report from the Commission of Evidenced-Based Policy.

While it has been watered down a bit, what I argued then is still true today: the bill “offers a genuine opportunity to not only improve how the nation makes decisions but embed more openness into how the federal government conducts the public’s business.”

The addition of OGDA into that bill was “an important endorsement of open government data by one of the most powerful politicians in the world” and “a milestone for the open movement, an important validation of this way of making public policy, and the fundamental principles of data-driven 21st century governance.”

The OGDA was one of the primary legislative priorities for me during my years as a senior analyst and then deputy director at the Sunlight Foundation, along with Freedom of Information Act Reform and Honest Ads Act.

I picked up the transparency baton on OGDA from former Sunlight analyst Matt Rumsey, Sunlight federal policy manager Sean Vitka, OpenGov Foundation founder Seamus Kraft, and Data Coalition founder Hudson Hollister, who drafted the original open data bill, working to make the principle that “public data created with taxpayer dollars should be available to the public in open, machine-readable forms when doing so does not damage privacy or national security” the law.

This is a huge win for public access to public information that every American can and should celebrate today. Special thanks for this victory are due to Christian Hoehner, policy director for the Data Coalition, who did extraordinary yeoman’s work getting this through Congress, Sasha Moss of the R Street Institute, Hollister, Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, Daniel Castro and Joshua New at the Center for Data Innovation, and Gavin Baker from the American Library Association, some with whom I went to Congress with me to meet with staff over the years and advocated for the bill on and offline.

The passage of this bill won’t mean that the scanned images of spreadsheets that agencies still send in response to FOIA requests will magically go away tomorrow, but journalists, watchdogs and the public can now tell civil servants that they’re now behind the times: open government data is now the default in the USA! Please publish our data on the agency website in a structured format and let the public know.

[Image Credit: Sunlight Foundation]

Congress releases open data on bill status

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Imagine searching Facebook, Google or Twitter for the status of a bill before Congress and getting an instant result. That future is now here, but it’s not evenly implemented yet.

When the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in 2012, they failed to release the data behind it. Yesterday, that changed when the United States Congress started releasing data online about the status of bills.

For the open government advocates, activists and civic hackers that have been working for over a decade for this moment, seeing Congress turn on the data tap was a historic shift.

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Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle applauded the release of House and Senate bill status information by the U.S. Government Printing Office and Library of Congress.

“Today’s release of bill status information via bulk download is a watershed moment for Congressional transparency,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in a statement. “By modernizing our approach to government and increasing public access to information, we can begin to repair the relationship between the people and their democratic institutions. The entire Congressional community applauds the dedication of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, the Office of the Clerk, the House Appropriations Committee, GPO, and the Library of Congress, which worked together to make this progress possible.”

“Building off previous releases of bills and summaries, today’s release of bill status information largely completes the overarching goal of providing bulk access to all the legislative data that traditionally has been housed on Thomas.gov and now also resides on Congress.gov,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “This is a major accomplishment that has been many years in the making. It goes a long way toward making Congress more transparent and accessible to innovation through third party apps and systems. I applaud the dedicated civil servants who made this possible at the Legislative Branch service agencies, and I want to thank the Bulk Data Task Force for their leadership in this effort. While this largely completes a major goal of the Task Force, I look forward to continuing to workwith them to further modernize the U.S. Congress.”

The impact of open government data releases depend upon publicy and political agency. Releasing the states of bills before Congress in a way that can be baked in by third party apps and services is a critical, laudable step in that direction, but much more remains to be done in making the data more open and putting it to use and re-use. If the Library of Congress opens up an application programming interface for the data that supplies both Congress.gov and the public, it would help to reduce the asynchrony of legislative information between the public and elites who can afford to pay for Politico’s Legislative Compass or Quorum Analytics that is the status quo today.

In an era when Congress job approval ratings and trust in government are at historic lows, the shift didn’t make news beyond the Beltway. Govtrack.us, which is based upon data scraped from the Library of Congress, has been online for years. Until this XML data is used by media and technology companies in ways that provide the public with more understanding of what Congress is doing on their behalf and give them more influence in that legislative process, that’s unlikely to change quickly.

U.S. Civil Society Groups release model National Open Government Action Plan

This is the week for seeking feedback on open government in the United States. 4 days ago, the White House published a collaborative online document that digitized the notes from an open government workshop held during Sunshine Week in March. Today, Abby Paulson from OpenTheGovernment.org uploaded a final draft of a Model National Action Plan to the Internet, as a .doc. I’ve uploaded it to Scribd and embedded it below for easy browsing.

Nelson shared the document over email with people who contributed to the online draft.

Thank you so much for contributing to the civil society model National Action Plan. The Plan has made its way from Google Site to Word doc (attached)! We will share these recommendations with the White House, and I encourage you to share your commitments with any government contacts you have. If you notice any errors made in the transition from web to document, please let me know. If there are any other organizations that should be named as contributors, we will certainly add them as well. The White House’s consultation for their plan will continue throughout the summer, so there are still opportunities to weigh in. Additional recommendations on surveillance transparency and beneficial ownership are in development. We will work to secure meetings with the relevant agencies and officials to discuss these recommendations and make a push for their inclusion in the official government plan. So, expect to hear from us in the coming weeks!

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]

U.S. government launches online traffic analytics dashboard for federal websites

There are roughly 1,361 .gov domains* operated by the executive branch of the United States federal government, 700-800 of which are live and in active use. Today, for the first time, the public can see how many people are visiting 300 executive branch government domains in real-time, including every cabinet department, by visiting analytics.usa.gov.

According to a post on the White House blog, the United States Digital Service “will use the data from the Digital Analytics Program to focus our digital service teams on the services that matter most to the American people, and analyze how much progress we are making. The Dashboard will help government agencies understand how people find, access, and use government services online to better serve the public – all while protecting privacy.  The program does not track individuals. It anonymizes the IP addresses of all visitors and then uses the resulting information in the aggregate.”

On Thursday morning, March 19th, tax-related services, weather, and immigration status are all popular. Notably, there’s an e-petition on the White House WeThePeople platform listed as well, adding data-driven transparency to what’s popular there right now.
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Former United States deputy chief technology officer Nick Sinai is excited about seeing the Web analytics data opened up online. Writing for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, where he is currently a fellow, Sinai adds some context for the new feature:

“Making government web performance open follows the digital services playbook from the new U.S. Digital Services,” he wrote. “Using data to drive decisions and defaulting to open are important strategies for building simple and useful citizen-facing digital services. Teal-time and historical government web performance is another example of how open government data holds the promise of improving government accountability and rebuilding trust in government.”

Here’s what the U.S. digital services team says they’ve already learned from analyzing this data:

Here’s what we’ve already learned from the data:

  • Our services must work well on all devices. Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.
  • Seasonal services and unexpected events can cause surges in traffic. As you might expect, tax season is a busy time for the IRS. This is reflected in visits to pages on IRS.gov, which have more than tripled in the past 90 days compared with the previous quarter. Other jumps in traffic are less easy to predict. For example, a recently-announced settlement between AT&T and the Federal Trade Commissiongenerated a large increase in visits to the FTC’s website. Shortly after the settlement was announced, FTC.gov had four times more visitors than the same period in the previous year. These fluctuations underscore the importance of flexibility in the way we deploy our services so that we can scale our web hosting to support surges in traffic as well as save money when our sites are less busy.
  • Most people access our sites using newer web browsers. How do we improve digital services for everyone when not all web browsers work the same way? The data tells us that the percentage of people accessing our sites using outdated browsers is declining steadily. As users adopt newer web browsers, we can build services that use modern features and spend less time and money building services that work on outdated browsers. This change will also allow us to take advantage of features found in modern browsers that make it easier to build services that work well for Americans with disabilities, who access digital services using specialized devices such as screen readers.

If you have ideas, feedback or questions, the team behind the dashboard is working in the open on Github.

Over the coming months, we will encourage more sites to join the Digital Analytics Program, and we’ll include more information and insights about traffic to government sites with the same open source development process we used to create the Dashboard. If you have ideas for the project, or want to help improve it, let us know by contributing to the project on GitHub or emailing digitalgov@gsa.gov.

That last bit is notable; as its true all of the projects that 18F works on, this analytics dashboard is open source software.

There are some interesting additional details in 18F’s blog post on how the analytics dashbard was built, including the estimate that it took place “over the course of 2-3 weeks” with usability testing at a “local civic hacking meetup.”

First, that big number is made from HTML and D3, a Javascript library, that downloads and render the data. Using open standards means it renders well across browsers and mobile devices.

Second, 18F made an open source tool to manage the data reporting process called “analytics-reporter” that downloads Google Analytics reports and transforms that data into JSON.

Hopefully, in the years ahead, the American people will see more than the traffic to .gov websites: they’ll see concrete performance metrics like those displayed for the digital services the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services team publishes at gov.uk/performance, including uptime, completion rate and satisfaction rate.

In the future, if the public can see the performance of Heathcare.gov, including glitches, or other government digital services, perhaps the people building and operating them will have more accountability for uptime and quality of service.

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.

In a step towards sunlight, United States begins to publish a national data inventory

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Last year, a successful Freedom of Information request for the United States enterprise data inventory by the Sunlight Foundation was a big win for open government, nudging Uncle Sam towards a better information policy through some creative legal arguments. Today, the federal government started releasing its enterprise indices at data.gov. You can browse the data for individual agencies, like the feed for the Office for Personnel Management, using a JSON viewer like this one.

“Access to this data will empower journalists, government officials, civic technologists, innovators and the public to better hold government accountable,” said Sunlight Foundation president Chris Gates, in a statement. “Previously, it was next to impossible to know what and how much data the government has, and this is an unprecedented window into its internal workings. Transparency is a bedrock principle for democracy, and the federal government’s response to Sunlight’s Freedom of Information request shows a strong commitment to open data. We expect to see each of these agencies continue to proactively release their data inventories.”

Understanding what data an organization holds is a critical first step in deciding how it should be stored, analyzed or published, shifting towards thinking about data as an asset. That’s why President Barack Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to catalog the data they have was a big deal. When that organization is a democratic government and the data in question was created using taxpayer funds, releasing the inventory of the data sets that it holds is a basic expression of open and accountable government.