New recommendations for improving local open government and creating online hubs

Today, the Aspen Institute hosted a roundtable on government transparency and online hubs in Washington, DC. You can watch the archived webcast below.

The roundtable focused on the release of two new white papers. The first, “Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action,” by Adam Thierer, discusses scenarios where community leaders, citizens, media, technologists and — critically, local government — can work together” to create local online hubs where citizens can access information about their governments and local communities.” Creating such high-quality online information hubs was one of the 15 key recommendations of Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. “Just as communities depend on maps of physical space, they should create maps of information flow that enable members of the public to connect to the data and information they want,” said the Knight Commission. (Download PDF or Read Online)

“Governments need to get more information out and make it more accessible, said Thierer today. “This shouldn’t be controversial.” Thierer said that government can do well to catalyze and support this development simply by doing a better job of making such information easily available in easy to use formats. While open government data stores have grown, Thierer noted that this has not trickled down. He cited the example of Manor, Texas as one example of where one local champion (former CIO Dustin Haisler) got help from Stanford and other external resources to get the local open data repository online.

Broadly, Thierer described three models for online hubs:

  • Hubs focused on community government information. Example: Texas Tribune
  • Community connections: local forums and community email listservs. Example:
  • Community news and commentary. Example: Universal Hub

Thierer focused on the important role that libraries and local or state universities can play in this new ecosystem, by connected offline and online worlds. These universities could create “code toolboxes” that local communities can use, as Stanford did for Manor. He hoped that that model could be replicated nationally.

Government transparency

Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government, by Jon Gant and Nicol Turner-Lee, is call to action for state and local governments to adopt open government. The six sensible strategies “focus on enhancing government expertise and transparency, educating citizens regarding the availability and utility of government information and e-government tools, expanding efforts to support greater adoption of broadband Internet access services and devices, and forging public-private-citizen partnerships in order to enhance open government solutions.” (Download PDF or Read Online)

There are three basic issues here, according to Turner-Lee:

  • Do people get it?
  • Do they have the resources they need?
  • Can they do transparency with those resources?

“All of us who have been in this debate have seen a conflict between these three factors, said Turner-Lee. The question, she said Turner-Lee, is how we empower state and local government. The challenge is that in most open data effort, “We are still in a one-way world, where data is pushed down to the public, not in a reciprocal ecosystem.”

It’s one thing to say citizens who should be involved, said Turner-Lee, but more needs to be done. “As an organizer, I can speak to that. It’s hard to get people to a block meeting,” much less meeting online, she said. There’s also a persistent issue of the digital divide that has to be addressed in this context. “We cannot proclaim government transparency” where millions of people don’t have online access, said Turner-Lee.

There are many examples of where open data is being put to use on the behalf of citizens now. Turner cited apps driven by transit data in Chicago, heritage trees in Portland or the use of 311 by SeeClickFix in the District of Columbia.

Jon Grant focused on a major pain point for government at all levels for tapping into the innovation economy: procurement issues, which civic entrepreneurs run into in cities, statehouses and Washington. “It is time to look at these procurement rules more closely,” he said, and promote higher levels of innovation. “There are a lot of ideas are happening but a lot of rules restrict vendors from interacting in government,” said Grant. Turner-Lee observed that traditional procurement laws may also not be flexible enough to bring more mobile apps into government.

Fundamentally, empowering more government transparency through the Internet will require both creating a climate for the actions, said Turner-Lee, but also through structural changes, specifically, through the release of spectrum and Universal Service Fund (USF) reform.

It will also require that state and local government officials are part of the conversation, “It they aren’t at the table, we’re going to be pretty much talking to ourselves,” said Turner-Lee.

Former San Francisco CIO Chris Vein, now the new White House deputy CTO for government innovation, agreed. biggest challenge of all is that we like to think there are templates. to a certain extent, they can be. fundamentally, all politics is local. To make this work in government, a community “needs someone who takes risks, who goes out there and makes it happen regardlesss of the cost.”

All stakeholder at the panel acknowledged the crucial importance of community institutions, nonprofits and libraries in addressing issues of the digital divide and creating a bridge between online hubs and local citizens. Turner Lee noted that billions of people over the course of years have come into libraries for assistance, particularly the homeless and low-income citizens. “What better way to get people into the system by enabling libraries to be a conduit of information?” she asked.

“Public information belongs to the public, and the public’s business should be done in public,” said Turner. That said, local citizens also don’t want data for the sake of data. “Consumption of this data would be inconsistent if the data doesn’t provide quality of life,” she said.

Why does government social media use matter to citizens?

An important role of technology journalists in the 21st century is to explain how broader trends that are changing technology, government and civic society relate to average citizens. Some have called this broader trend towards smarter, more agile government that leverage technology “Gov 2.0.” (Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the term.) When you dig into the topic, you can get stuck in a lot of buzzwords and jargon quickly. Most people don’t care about how a satellite gets into orbit, the release of community health data or the standards of an API for product recalls. They care quite a bit, however, about whether their GPS receiver enables them to get to a job interview, if a search engine can show them ER waiting room times and quality statistics, or if a cradle for their baby is safe. Those wonky policies can lead to better outcomes for citizens.

If you follow Mashable, you might have read about the ways that social media promotes good health or how government works better with social media.

The following stories have little to do with technology buzzwords and everything to do with impact. Following are five stories about government 2.0 that matter to citizens, with issues that literally come home to everyone.

1) The Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a public complaints database at You could think of it as a Yelp for government, or simply as a place where consumers could go to see what was safe. Add that to the mobile recalls application that people can already use to see whether a product has been recalled.

2) The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will use technology to listen to citizens online to detect fraud. If you haven’t heard, DC has a new startup agency. That hasn’t happened in a long time. Your could think of it as mashed up with The CFPB plans to use technology in a number of unprecedented ways for fraud detection, including crowdsourcing consumer complaints and trends analysis. Given how much financial fraud has affected citizens in recent years,and how much of the anger that the public holds for the bailouts of banks remains, whether this agency leveraging technology well will matter to many citizens.

3) Social data and geospatial mapping join the crisis response toolset. Historic floods in Australia caused serious damage and deaths. Government workers used next-generation technology that pulled in social media in Australia and mapped the instances using geospatial tools so that first responders could help citizens faster, more efficiently and more effectively. It’s an excellent example of how an enterprise software provider (ESRI) partnered with an open source platform (Ushahidi) to help government workers use social media to help people.

4) New geolocation app connects first responders to heart attack victims.The average citizen will never need to know what Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0 means. Tens of thousands, however, will have heart attacks every year. With a new geolocation mobile application that connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims, connected citizens trained in CPR now have a new tool to help them save lives.

Better access to information about food safety, product recalls and financial fraud will help citizens around the country. Improvements to the ability of government workers to direct help in a disastrous flood or for citizens to receive immediate help from a trained first responder in an emergency are important developments. As 2011 takes shape, the need for government to use social media well has become more important than ever. That’s why the perspective of government officials like FEMA administrator Craig Fugate matter.

“We work for the people, so why can’t they be part of the solution? “
said Fugate, speaking to delegates from the distributed chapters of Crisis Commons assembled at FEMA headquarters. “The public is a resource, not a 

For example, Fugate said that FEMA used reporters’ tweets during Hurricane Ike for
 situational awareness. “We’ve seen mashups providing better info than
 the government.” Listening and acting upon those digital cries for help on social media during crisis could literally be a matter of life and death.

Whether government can adapt to a disrupted media landscape and the new realities of information consumption is of substantial interest to many observers, both inside and out of government. Whether government can be smarter, agile and more effective is a great interest to all.

FT: “Open government never meant the real-time disclosure of all state activity”

The Financial Times opinion page weighed in on the state of open government in the United States and the United Kingdom today. The gist of the comment is that President Obama’s open data agenda has slightly stalled. A key excerpt, below, focused on potential sources of delay.

Barack Obama, the US president, and David Cameron, the UK premier, took power with a more mundane vision of transparency than that of Julian Assange – that governments should keep as many secrets only as truly necessary. Both were excited by the dry business of putting public data online. But they were right to be: signs that Mr Obama, in particular, has seen his efforts stall are a shame.

WikiLeaks releases highly sensitive diplomatic material. But governments collect reams of less delicate data, from exam results and hospital inspections to maps and weather reports. This can often be reused on the web, creating profitable businesses, helpful advice to citizens or tools that hold leaders to account. Not all such data are useful, just as not all scientific discoveries lead to new drugs. And not all should be published, if they break data protection rules. But more should be than at present.

It would be irresponsible to deny a state’s right to protect its interests, and those of its citizens, by keeping some secrets. Open government never meant the real-time disclosure of all state activity. But the reasons for hiding public information too often stem from fear of embarrassment, force of habit or politicians going cold on previous ideals – not the public interest.

Here Mr Obama began strongly, speedily unveiling schemes to unlock new data. Yet his progress has slowed as departments delay and fudge and the White House’s attention is diverted elsewhere. Mr Cameron has done better, in part by being more focused — and thus picking fewer fights with often recalcitrant civil servants.

The full Financial Times op-ed is online here, behind a registration wall: “Open up, before it becomes too late.”

For a look back at the progress of the Open Government Directive in its first year, click over to the Huffington Post.

Washington, D.C. publishes its first digital divide strategy

The digital divide in D.C. is an issue that has been receiving increased sunlight under the District’s chief technology officer, Bryan Sivak. As the Kojo Nnamdi Show episode on the D.C. digital divide reported, “a 2009 study by the OCTO found that the digital divide runs very deep in the city – 90% of residents in Northwest D.C. have high-speed internet access in their homes, but in Southeast, that figure falls to just 36% – 40%.”

Earlier this year, Washington became the recipient of stimulus funding for a digital divide initiative. This summer, the city turned on free wifi in many neighborhoods, which can be viewed at Today, Sivak announced D.C.’s first digital divide strategy:
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Proud to announce the release of DC’s first ever strategic plan for addressing the digital divide: than a minute ago via Chromed Bird

It’s embedded below in the post. Interestingly, the digital divide strategy announcement at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer of D.C. indicated that it would be a “living document,” much like the Web itself:

OCTO is pleased to release a public draft of the District of Columbia’s first ever strategic plan to address the digital divide. This is intended to be a living document, updated quarterly or bi-annually as conditions warrant, and will reflect the current high-level vision of the District Government as it relates to tackling this important issue. Feedback is welcome so please feel free to share your thoughts and help us bridge this gap.

Digital Divide Strategy

For a feel for the thinking of the DC CTO on this count, watch Sivak’s closing statement from the District of Columbia’s first-ever “Community Broadband Summit” (DC-CBS) is embedded below. The summit was a public forum designed to address the city’s digital divide.

Bryan Sivak – Closing Remarks from DCNET Multimedia on Vimeo.

It’s not clear whether Sivak will stay on under incoming Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray’s administration. If not, here’s hoping his replacement works with the D.C. tech community to connect more citizens to the Internet. Online access has become a vital link for information, services, access to jobs, education and communication with family, friends, teachers and coworkers in the 21st century. The District should be commended for continuing to working to bridge it.

What do you think of the strategy? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

White House hosts online webchat on anniversary of Open Government Directive

Tomorrow, December 8, is the one year anniversary of the White House Open Government Directive, which which required federal agencies to take steps to achieve key milestones in transparency, participation, and collaboration. At 2:00 PM EST, the first United States chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, will join OMB chief information officer Vivek Kundra and Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, in a live web chat at Video of the webcast is embedded below:

The @OpenGov account and White House solicited questions through an online form tool at and through the White House Facebook page. The chat itself will be hosted using the White House Live Facebook app and streamed live online through or, presumably, the White House iPhone app. Watch for whether any three of the White House officials answer questions on Wikileaks and open government. (UPDATE: They didn’t.) President Obama’s press conference on a tax deal with the GOP superseded the original chat on Tuesday, which the @WhiteHouseOSTP account confirmed.

I’ll be liveblogging the chat here using CoverItLive, embedded below:

White House Open Government Live Chat

The Sunlight Foundation released the following statement on the one year anniversary of the open government directive:

“In its first year, the Open Government Directive made government transparency a priority and encouraged federal agencies to put important information online. While more government information is now available online, the Directive’s limitations have also become clearer. Simply put, the president’s commitment to transparency is not yet living up to its full potential. The Open Government Directive is a great starting point, but the hard work that is needed to create a truly open government is still ahead of us.

“Agencies such as the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and NASA have led the way in releasing data, and the working groups created among key staff have brought about real cultural change within agencies. But all of these initiatives need a steady hand and a clear commitment from the White House to mature into permanent, reliable, effective policies that result in meaningful data online.

“More concentrated work is needed to move beyond the easy wins. The administration has to give stronger direction and urge the agencies to move forward if the promise of an open government is to be realized.”

Sunlight’s recommendations for a more open government are available online at

John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation is also liveblogging.

For more context on White House open government innovation, review the following pieces:

The open government community will likely be discussing the chat on Twitter.  Embedded below is a curated list of open government accounts:


Adding social context to low public transparency ratings for federal government

What does open government need to break through the awareness barrier? A new study of federal government transparency efforts released by NextGov and ForeSeeResults gave all entities in the survey low marks in court of public opinion. Here’s the executive summary:

“Nearly two years after a memorandum to the federal government calling for ambitious and sweeping open government initiatives, many are wondering if the goals of openness, democratic participation, and collaboration have taken root and, if so, how successful the efforts have been.

ForeSee Results, in partnership with Nextgov, designed a comprehensive survey to assess how citizens grade four government entities (the government overall, the White House, Congress, and federal agencies and departments) in terms of Open Government Initiative (OGI) principles like transparency and trust. The goals of the research were:

• To get a baseline, quantifiable measurement of citizen trust and perceptions of transparency against which future measurements can be benchmarked

• To compare key citizen-facing government entities

There were four key findings in the study:

  1. All measured entities received low scores when it comes to transparency, citizen satisfaction, and trust.
  2. The White House received the highest score as the most transparent of the four measured entities.
  3. There is a clear and proven relationship between transparency, satisfaction and trust.
  4. Congress has the lowest score of any of the four entities.

To get a sense of what the online community thought about the study, I fired up Twitter and collected the feedback I received after asking a few questions using Storify, a social media curation tool.

Making sense of Gov 2.0, Open Government and We Government at Ogilvy

What is Gov 2.0?

How does making government smarter relate to open government, e-government or “We government?”

As Sifry put it in the Huffington Post this week ,

At Personal Democracy Forum, we prefer the term “We-government,” the co-creating of new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, public data and the social web to address vital issues and solve public problems, that enables us to do more with less. It’s neither Right nor Left, not small government or big government, but effective do-it-ourselves-government.

What are the early success stories and challenges for an open government in betaThis morning in Washington, I dodged rain drops on my way to a Gov 2.0 panel moderated by Ogilvy Digital’s Rohit Bhargava to talk about that very topic, joining Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Micah Sifry; Mark Murray, deputy political director for NBC News; Ari Melber, correspondent and blogger for the Nation magazine and Politico; and Gwynne Kostin, Director at the Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement at the GSA.

The panel was livestreamed at and integrated with the Ogilvy’s 360 Digital Influence Facebook page for an online audience. Fast forward to about 30 minutes into the archive for the beginning of the event.

“We’re just beginning to see the government using the Web in a more porous, participatory way,” said Sifry, who saw no reason that government workers couldn’t get technology in the same way other citizens else can. “Really, government workers have mastered the telephone,” he said. “The can probably use Web 2.0 tools.”

Gov 2.0 Case Studies

While Sifry was critical of the White House’s embrace of Gov 2.0 and open government, he observed that at the agency level he’s seeing “a flowering of initiative.” That’s backed up by what I’ve seen on the ground and have reported on in numerous studies. For instance:

“There is a civic surplus waiting to be tapped of people who want the country to succeed,” said Sifry. And, in fact, I reported on Harnessing the Civic Surplus for Open Government,” when Noveck spoke in Manor, Texas about all of these initiatives.

I’m shortchanging the comments of Melber, Kostin and Murray due to time, unfortunately, but the #Ogilvy360di tweetstream and archived livestream offer additional perspective. Both of the reporters provided ample insight into the hyper-charged world of national correspondents in Washington, where news and issues move almost as quickly as the polls. More of Kostin’s thoughts may also be fond at her blog, OnDotGov.

Selected reflections from the online audience:

@msspinach: “The hot question: what exactly is #gov20? Gwynne Kostin: ‘We’re still throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.'”

@voleynik:#Gov20 = government using the web to create better services for citizens. Creating smarter more effective government.”

@SaBean21: “Our bill of rights is being used in a digital form. Open platform is a tiny & fragile thing we have right now.

@dlblack: “@digiphile: the gov20 / #opengov conversation can’t just be about Washington, it has to be about data people can use”

@msspinach: “#gov20 means whoever is in power gives up some cntrl. If u want group prticipation, ppl need to feel they’re being listened to.”

@merici:”Ok, social media exists. We get it. Moving fwd, what are ex of gov using web to be smarter, more efficient?”

@dlblack: “not all #gov20 projects need to be about mass participation, they need to be about exchanging knowledge w/right audience”