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.

Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency

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.

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 data journalism, accountability and society in the Second Machine Age

On Monday, I delivered a short talk on data journalism, networked transparency, algorithmic transparency and the public interest at the Data & Society Research Institute’s workshop on the social, cultural & ethical dimensions of “big data”. The forum was convened by the Data & Society Research Institute and hosted at New York University’s Information Law Institute at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as part of an ongoing review on big data and privacy ordered by President Barack Obama.

Video of the talk is below, along with the slides I used. You can view all of the videos from the workshop, along with the public plenary on Monday evening, on YouTube or at the workshop page.

Here’s the presentation, with embedded hyperlinks to the organizations, projects and examples discussed:

For more on the “Second Machine Age” referenced in the title, read the new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Fung outlines principles for democratic transparency and open government

Archon Fung has published a new paper” [PDF] on open government, information and democracy. The abstract includes a useful breakdown of the components of democratic transparency:

In Infotopia, citizens enjoy a wide range of information about the organizations
upon which they rely for the satisfaction of their vital interests. The provision of
that information is governed by principles of democratic transparency. Democratic
transparency both extends and critiques current enthusiasms about transparency. It
urges us to conceptualize information politically, as a resource to turn the behavior of
large organizations in socially beneficial ways. Transparency efforts have targets, and we
should think of those targets as large organizations: public and civic, but especially private
and corporate. Democratic transparency consists of four principles. First, information
about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests
should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public. Second, the amount of available
information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations
jeopardize citizens’ interests. Third, information should be organized and provided in
ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information. Finally, the
social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that
allow individuals and groups to take action based on Infotopia’s public disclosures.

Fung’s paper focuses on focus upon “information about the activities of
large organizations—especially corporations and governments—rather than individuals” and “the important, defensive, face of the informational problem: information that people need to protect themselves against the actions of large organizations and to navigate the terrain created by such organizations,” as opposed to the myriad positive uses of open government data.