Mechaber also mentioned two other things worth highlighting: “a simplified signing process that removes the need to create an account just to sign a petition” and a Write API that will “eventually allow people to sign petitions using new technologies, and on sites other than WhiteHouse.gov.” If and when that API goes live, I expect user growth and activity to spike again. Imagine, for instance, if people could sign petitions from within news stories or though Change.org. Enabling petition creators to have more of a relationship with signatories would also address one of the principal critiques levied against the site’s function. Professor Dave Karpf:
Launching the online petition at We The People created the conditions for a formal response from the White House. That was a plus. We The People provided no help in amplifying the petitions through email and social media. That was neutral in this case, since Reddit, EFF, Public Knowledge, and others were helping to amplify instead. But the site left the petition-creators with no residual list for follow-up actions. That’s a huge minus.
If the petition had been launched through a different site (like Change.org), then it would have been less likely to get a formal White House response, but more likely to facilitate the follow-up actions that Khanna/Howard, Wiens and Khanifar say are vital to eventual success.
The White House has not provided a timeline for when the beta API will become public. If they respond to my questions, I’ll update this post.
We are excited that Mikey Dickerson will serve as the Administrator of the U.S. Digital Service and Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer. Mikey was part of the team that helped fix HealthCare.gov last fall and will lead the Digital Service team on efforts to apply technology in smarter, more effective ways that improve the delivery of federal services, information, and benefits.
The Digital Service will work to find solutions to management challenges that can prevent progress in IT delivery. To do this, we will build a team of more than just a group of tech experts – Digital Service hires will have talent and expertise in a variety of disciplines, including procurement, human resources, and finance. The Digital Service team will take private and public-sector best practices and help scale them across agencies – always with a focus on the customer experience in mind. We will pilot the Digital Service with existing funds in 2014, and would scale in 2015 as outlined in the President’s FY 2015 Budget.
The USDS goes live with a Digital Services Playbook and “TechFAR,” a subsection of the guide that “highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that can help agencies implement ‘plays’ from the Digital Services Playbook.”
As some guy wrote in November 18, 2013: “If Obama now, finally, fully realizes how much of an issue the broken state of government IT procurement is to federal agencies fulfilling their missions in the 21st century, he’ll use the soft power of the White House to convene the smartest minds from around the country and the hard power of an executive order to create the kernel of a United States Digital Services team built around the DNA of the CFPB: digital by default, open by nature.”
This isn’t quite that – the USDS looks like more of a management consulting shop, vs the implementation and building than the Presidential Innovation Fellows and folks at 18F, but maybe, all together, they’ll add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
When the U.S. House of Representatives passed S.517 today, voting to send the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” that the U.S. Senate passed unanimously last week, the legislative branch completed an unprecedented democratic process: a bill that had in its genesis in a White House e-petition signed by more than 100,000 consumers was sent back to the White House for the President’s signature. If signed into law, the bill would 1) make it legal for consumers to unlock their cellphones in January 2015, reversing a controversial decision made by the Librarian of Congress in 2013 by reinstating a 2010 rulemaking and 2) direct the Librarian to consider if other mobile devices, like tablets, should also be eligible to be unlocked.
As Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s staff highlighted, the ranking members and chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees started cooperating on the issue in 2013 after the White House responded to the e-petition.
“I thank the House for moving so quickly on the bill we passed in the Senate last week and for working in a bipartisan way to support consumers,” said Leahy, in a statement. “The bipartisan Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act puts consumers first, promotes competition in the wireless phone marketplace, and encourages continued use of existing devices. Once the President signs this bill into law, consumers will be able to more easily use their existing cell phones on the wireless carrier of their choice.”
It’s critical to note that there’s a much deeper backstory to why activism worked: the people behind the e-petition didn’t stop with an official response from the White House. After making a lot of noise online, activists engaged Congress over a year and a half, visiting Capitol Hill, sitting in on phone calls and hearings, and being involved in the democratic process that led to this positive change.
“Many of the initial conversations on DMCA reform were engaged with the Republic Study Committee copyright memo in 2012, so it’s been a 21 month process,” said former Congressional staffer Derek Khanna, via email, “but such sea changes in policy usually take a long time, particularly if you’re confronting very powerful interests.”
Khanna, now a fellow at Yale Law School and columnist, was part of the coalition of activists advocating for this change in Congress.
“The campaign on unlocking was really trying to drive those issues and solutions through movement politics,” he said, “and that movement has succeeded in more than just the unlocking bill: now there is also the Judiciary Committee having hearings on copyright reform. The YG Network report, “Room to Grow,” also called for wholesale copyright and patent reforms and cited the RSC memo.”
This is an important lesson in why “clicktivism” alone won’t be enough to make changes to laws or regulations emanating from Washington: people who want to shifts in policy or legislation have to learn how Congress works and act.
“A key part of our success was starting small with definable goals, and taking small successes and building upon them,” said Khanna. “Most movements throughout history have followed this strategy. Sometimes, e-campaigns shoot for the moon when the small battles have not been won yet. This is particularly a problem with tech issues. One reason why the unlocking petition was more successful than others was because it was only a tool in the toolkit. While it was ongoing, I was arguing our cause in the media, writing op-eds, meeting with Congress, giving speeches, and working with think-tanks. We basically saw the petition as energy to reinforce our message and channel our support, not the entire ballgame. Some petition campaigns fail because they assume that the petition is it: you get it to 100,000 signatures and you win or lose. Some fail because they don’t have a ground presence in Washington, DC, trying to influence the actual channels that Members of Congress and their staff follow.”
The hardest part, according to Khanna, was keeping the momentum going after the e-petition succeeded and the White House responded, agreeing with the petitioners.
“We had no list-serve of our signatories, no organization, and no money,” he said. “It was extremely difficult. In fact, some of us were pushing for a more unified organization at the time. Others were more reluctant to go in that direction. A unified organization will be critical to future battles. Special interests were actively working against us and even derailed the original House bill after it passed Committee; having a unified organization would have helped move this process more quickly.”
That organization and DC ground game doesn’t mean that this e-petition didn’t matter: its success was a strong signal for policy makers that people cared about this issue. That’s also important: in the years since the launch of White House e-petitions in September 2011, the digital manifestation of the right of the people to “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States has come in for a lot of grief.
In a statement published by Politico, President Obama indicated that he would make unlocking cellphones legal: “The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice so that they can find a cellphone carrier that meets their needs and their budget,” he said.
Perhaps it’s now, finally, time for the President of the United States to personally respond to a second e-petition, making it clear whether or not a constitutional law professor believes that the federal government should have to get a warrant before reading the email or personal papers of citizens stored online.
UPDATE: On August 1st, President Obama signed the bill into law.
President Barack Obama signs S. 517, Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, in the Oval Office, Aug. 1, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
This is an example of the federal government “answering the public’s call,” wrote Jeffrey Zients, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Today, President Obama will sign into law the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, and in doing so, will achieve a rare trifecta: a win for American consumers, a win for wireless competition, and an example of Democracy at its best — bipartisan Congressional action in direct response to a call to action from the American people.
The story of how we broke through Washington gridlock to restore the freedom of consumers to take their mobile phone wherever they choose is one worth telling, and a model worth repeating.”
Activist Sina Khanifar added a celebratory note via email, echoing Khanna’s points about process and highlighting what’s left to do to enable all consumers to unlock their mobile devices:
The original petition did a lot to kick off the process, but it took about a year and a half of negotiating with stakeholders, going back and forth with congressional staffers, and pushing back against corporate lobbies to get to an actual law. A big thanks to public advocacy groups like Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation who helped guide that process.
The bill’s a great step forwards, but we had to make a lot of compromises along the way. For one thing, it’s not a permanent fix. In 2015, the exemption expires and the Librarian of Congress will make another rulemaking and decide the fate of unlocking. I asked repeatedly for Congress to make the exemption permanent, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren even introduced the excellent “Unlocking Technology Act of 2013” that would have done just that. Unfortunately, Congress wasn’t ready to deal with the underlying copyright issue that makes it illegal to unlock your phone. Doing so would require amending the DMCA’s controversial anti-circumvention provisions, a step that’s desparately needed.
It’s not too late for Congress to pass real reform along the lines of Zoe Lofgren’s bill. I’ll continue to push for that change as part of my campaign at FixtheDMCA.org. In the meanwhile, I’m going to be celebrating tonight. And consumers have another year and half to unlock their devices. Hopefully the Librarian of Congress will have better sense than to deny an unlocking exemption again – congress sent a very clear message that unlocking should be legal by overturning a DMCA rulemaking for the first time in the law’s history.
UPDATE: On August 15th, weeks after the bill passed, the White House published a blog post with its take on how cell phone unlocking became legal, including a note regarding explicit involvement in policy change:
The White House policy team convened more than a half-dozen agencies and offices’ senior officials to ask a simple question: How can we move this issue forward? After careful deliberation, it was clear to us: The Administration couldn’t agree more with petitioners, and we came out in strong support of again making it legal for consumers to unlock their devices.
But we didn’t just agree; we offered a template for how to make it a reality. Our response laid out steps that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), wireless carriers, and Congress could take to make sure copyright law didn’t stand in the way of consumer choice. And over the following weeks and months, we worked with the FCC and wireless carriers to reach voluntary agreements to provide consumers with additional flexibility. That captured national attention, including support from national editorial pages.
All that helped motivate Congress to take action, and heed the call in a bipartisan way.
This post has been updated with a statement from the White House, comments from Derek Khanna, Sina Khanifar, a post by Senator Leahy and Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and a WhiteHouse.gov blog post.
So you’re opening up government data and making it easier to find and use – to inspire new ideas, spur economic growth, and ultimately make your agency more effective in achieving its mission. But you realize that your agency can’t just supply data – it’s also about getting and acting upon feedback, and catalyzing use of the data from a wide variety of stakeholders. A community event is a great way to hear ideas and feedback from passionate people, offer your expertise to people with thoughtful questions and evangelize your data assets. This document gives an overview of the main types of open data community events the U.S. Government holds.
A closed-press, day-long ideation event with developers, designers, and subject matter experts focused on one topic and top related open data sets. Several are held in succession, leading up to a datapalooza three months later. Ex: Health Data jam (HHS), 21st Century Jobs Jam (OVP, Commerce, OSTP), Mitigating Campus Sexual Assault (Department of Education, Department of Justice)
Goal: To connect tech and policy communities and get commitments to make things with open data, in support of agency mission and priorities.
An open press celebration, demo day, and platform to announce government open data releases or improvements. Ex: Safety Datapalooza (DOT, CPSC, FDA.)
Goal: To celebrate open data tools, companies and commitments and build momentum for projects.
An event where developers, designers, and strategists work in teams to solve problems with software and/or hardware and demo the resulting work at the end of the day. Ex: White House “We The People” API Hackathon, The American Art API Hackathon
Goal: To build relationships with the tech community and to see immediate tools and prototypes.
Bottom line: Datajams, datapaloozas and hackathons are all new methods for the White House to engage the public, and they’ve advanced the policy goals espoused in the open data executive order, but they aren’t enough on of themselves to broadly engage the public or end users for data.
After all of these years, it’s unfortunate to see the policy folks at the White House still failing to acknowledge, in a policy document like this, many of the primary end users of their data or where to go find them and engage them, much less do so. It’s also consistently disappointing to see the @OpenGov Twitter account, with nearly 700,000 followers, just broadcast messages and ignore @replies, instead of acknowledging criticism and engaging the public more around these efforts.
Some government staffers have joined the NICAR mailing list and responded to the concerns or wishes expressed there: here’s hoping more follow onto other communities. In the meantime, I’m experimenting with a pull request on Github to see if these suggestions might be incorporated into the policy.
Update: The White House accepted my pull request.
Engagement now includes:
A website, social networking group and/or email mailing list where people who use open data congregate to offer feedback, tips, new uses or reuses, data requests or case studies. Ex: Data.gov communities, NICAR/IRE, Code for America and Sunlight Foundation email listserv, Open Government Facebook and Google+ groups
Goal: To build and sustain ongoing relationships with media, nonprofits, good government advocates and civic technologists
FOIA Officers and Ombudsman
Federal agency staff dedicated to handling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from industry and media. The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and FOIA staff at agencies
Goal: To monitor and measure the incoming demand for data and proactively release data in response to that signal.
This post has been updated, including the headline.
Freely available data from the U.S. government is an important national resource, serving as fuel for entrepreneurship, innovation, scientific discovery, and economic growth. Making information about government operations more readily available and useful is also core to the promise of a more efficient and transparent government. This initiative is a key component of the President’s Management Agenda and our efforts to ensure the government is acting as an engine to expand economic growth and opportunity for all Americans. The Administration is committed to driving further progress in this area, including by designating Open Data as one of our key Cross-Agency Priority Goals.
Over the past few years, the Administration has launched a number of Open Data Initiatives aimed at scaling up open data efforts across the Health, Energy, Climate, Education, Finance, Public Safety, and Global Development sectors. The White House has also launched Project Open Data, designed to share best practices, examples, and software code to assist federal agencies with opening data. These efforts have helped unlock troves of valuable data—that taxpayers have already paid for—and are making these resources more open and accessible to innovators and the public.
Other countries are also opening up their data. In June 2013, President Obama and other G7 leaders endorsed the Open Data Charter, in which the United States committed to publish a roadmap for our nation’s approach to releasing and improving government data for the public. Building upon the Administration’s Open Data progress, and in fulfillment of the Open Data Charter, today we are excited to release the U.S. Open Data Action Plan.
Many releases of new data and improved access to existing databases. These include more climate data, adding an API to Smithsonian artwork and the Small Business Administration’s database of suppliers and making data available for re-use. *Late in the day, with a “thanks to the open data community for their vigilance,” The White House posted the list of “high value data sets” in the plan as a .CSV.
A policy that “new data sets will be prioritized for release based on public feedback.“
New open data projects at federal agencies, each of which will be led by a Presidential Innovation Fellow. According to the plan, the agencies will include NOAA, the Census Bureau, NASA, IRS, Interior, Labor, Energy and HHS.
The federal government’s progress on this open data action plan is likely to be similar, much as it has been for the past five years under the Obama administration: variable across agencies, with delays in publishing, issues in quality and carve outs for national security, particularly with respect to defense and intelligence agencies. That said, progress is progress: many of the open data releases detailed in the plan have already occurred.
If the American people, press, Congress and public worldwide wish to see whether the administration is following through on some of its transparency promises, they can do so by visiting agency websites and the federal open data repository, Data.gov, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary next week.
According to the third congressionally mandated report released by the Obama administration today (PDF/Text), the number of prizes and challenges conducted under the America COMPETES Act has increased by 50% since 2012, 85% since 2012, and nearly six-fold overall since 2011. 25 different federal agencies offered prizes under COMPETES in fiscal year 2013, with 87 prize competitions in total. The size of the prize purses has also grown as well, with 11 challenges over $100,000 in 2013. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 were focused on software, including applications, data visualization tools, and predictive algorithms. Challenge.gov, the award-winning online platform for crowdsourcing national challenges, now has tens of thousands of users who have participated in more than 300 public-sector prize competitions. Beyond the growth in prize numbers and amounts, Obama administration highlighted 4 trends in public-sector prize competitions:
New models for public engagement and community building during competitions
Growth software and information technology challenges, with nearly 50% of the total prizes in this category
More emphasis on sustainability and “creating a post-competition path to success”
Increased focus on identifying novel approaches to solving problems
The growth of open innovation in and by the public sector was directly enabled by Congress and the White House, working together for the common good. Congress reauthorized COMPETES in 2010 with an amendment to Section 105 of the act that added a Section 24 on “Prize Competitions,” providing all agencies with the authority to conduct prizes and challenges that only NASA and DARPA has previously enjoyed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been guiding its implementation and providing guidance on the use of challenges and prizes to promote open government.
In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.
To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, onlineresources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.
Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously once said that “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This rings true, in and outside of government. The idea of governments using prizes like this to inspire technological innovation, however, is not reliant on Web services and social media, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. As the introduction to the third White House prize report notes:
“One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.”
Centuries later, the Internet, World Wide Web, mobile devices and social media offer the best platforms in history for this kind of approach to solving grand challenges and catalyzing civic innovation, helping public officials and businesses find new ways to solve old problem. When a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, it can improve the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.
“Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, in an interview in 2012.” P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”
Prizes and competitions all rely upon the same simple idea behind the efforts like the X-Prize: tapping into the distributed intelligence of humans using a structured methodology. This might include distributing work, in terms of completing a given task or project, or soliciting information about how to design a process, product or policy.
Over the past decade, experiments with this kind of civic innovation around the world have been driven by tight budgets and increased demands for services, and enabled by the increased availability of inexpensive, lightweight tools for collaborating with connected populations. The report claimed that crowdsourcing can save federal agencies significant taxpayer dollars, citing an example of a challenge where the outcome cost a sixth of the estimated total of a traditional approach.
One example of a cost-effective prize program is the Medicaid Provider Screening Challenge that was offered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as part of a pilot designed in partnership with states and other stakeholders. This prize program was a series of software development challenges designed to improve capabilities for streamlining operations and screening Medicaid providers to reduce fraud and abuse. With a total prize purse of $500,000, the challenge series is leading to the development of an open source multi-state, multi-program provider screening shared-service software program capable of risk scoring, credential validation, identity authentication, and sanction checks, while lowering the burden on providers and reducing administrative and infrastructure expenses for states and Federal programs. CMS partnered with the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI), NASA’s contractor Harvard Business School, Harvard’s subcontractor TopCoder, and the State of Minnesota. The State of Minnesota is working on full deployment of the software, and CMS is initiating a campaign to encourage other states to leverage the software. COECI estimates that the cost of designing and building the portal through crowdsourcing was one-sixth of what the effort would have cost using traditional software development methods. Through the success of this and subsequent
challenges, CMS is attempting to establish a new paradigm for crowdsourcing state and Federal information technology (IT) systems in a low-cost, agile manner by opening challenges to new players, small companies, and talented individual developers to build solutions which can “plug and play” with existing legacy systems or can operate in a shared, cloud-based environment.
As is always the nature of experiments, many early attempts failed. A few have worked and subsequently grown into sustainable applications, services, data sources, startups, processes and knowledge that can be massively scaled. Years ago, Micah Sifry predicted that the “gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation” in government were going to be huge. He was right.
Linked below are the administration’s official letters to the House and Senate, reporting the results of last year’s prizes.
As White House special advisor John Podesta noted in January, the PCAST has been conducting a study “to explore in-depth the technological dimensions of the intersection of big data and privacy.” Earlier this week, the Associated Press interviewed Podesta about the results of the review, reporting that the White House had learned of the potential for discrimination through the use of data aggregation and analysis. These are precisely the privacy concerns that stem from data collection that I wrote about earlier this spring. Here’s the PCAST’s list of “things happening today or very soon” that provide examples of technologies that can have benefits but pose privacy risks:
Pioneered more than a decade ago, devices mounted on utility poles are able to sense the radio stations
being listened to by passing drivers, with the results sold to advertisers.26
In 2011, automatic license‐plate readers were in use by three quarters of local police departments
surveyed. Within 5 years, 25% of departments expect to have them installed on all patrol cars, alerting
police when a vehicle associated with an outstanding warrant is in view.27 Meanwhile, civilian uses of
license‐plate readers are emerging, leveraging cloud platforms and promising multiple ways of using the
Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Cambridge Police Department have used a
machine‐learning algorithm to identify which burglaries likely were committed by the same offender,
thus aiding police investigators.29
Differential pricing (offering different prices to different customers for essentially the same goods) has
become familiar in domains such as airline tickets and college costs. Big data may increase the power
and prevalence of this practice and may also decrease even further its transparency.30
reSpace offers machine‐learning algorithms to the gaming industry that may detect
early signs of gambling addiction or other aberrant behavior among online players.31
Retailers like CVS and AutoZone analyze their customers’ shopping patterns to improve the layout of
their stores and stock the products their customers want in a particular location.32 By tracking cell
phones, RetailNext offers bricks‐and‐mortar retailers the chance to recognize returning customers, just
as cookies allow them to be recognized by on‐line merchants.33 Similar WiFi tracking technology could
detect how many people are in a closed room (and in some cases their identities).
The retailer Target inferred that a teenage customer was pregnant and, by mailing her coupons
intended to be useful, unintentionally disclosed this fact to her father.34
The author of an anonymous book, magazine article, or web posting is frequently “outed” by informal
crowd sourcing, fueled by the natural curiosity of many unrelated individuals.35
Social media and public sources of records make it easy for anyone to infer the network of friends and
associates of most people who are active on the web, and many who are not.36
Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, uses predictive modeling to identify college students who are
at risk of dropping out, allowing it to target additional support to those in need.37
The Durkheim Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, analyzes social‐media behavior to
detect early signs of suicidal thoughts among veterans.38
LendUp, a California‐based startup, sought to use nontraditional data sources such as social media to
provide credit to underserved individuals. Because of the challenges in ensuring accuracy and fairness,
however, they have been unable to proceed.
The PCAST meeting was open to the public through a teleconference line. I called in and took rough notes on the discussion of the forthcoming report as it progressed. My notes on the comments of professors Susan Graham and Bill Press offer sufficient insight and into the forthcoming report, however, that I thought the public value of publishing them was warranted today, given the ongoing national debate regarding data collection, analysis, privacy and surveillance. The following should not be considered verbatim or an official transcript. The emphases below are mine, as are the words of [brackets]. For that, look for the PCAST to make a recording and transcript available online in the future, at its archive of past meetings.
Susan Graham: Our charge was to look at confluence of big data and privacy, to summarize current tech and the way technology is moving in foreseeable future, including its influence the way we think about privacy.
The first thing that’s very very obvious is that personal data in electronic form is pervasive. Traditional data that was in health and financial [paper] records is now electronic and online. Users provide info about themselves in exchange for various services. They use Web browsers and share their interests. They provide information via social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. There is [also] data collected that is invisible, from public cameras, microphones, and sensors.
What is unusual about this environment and big data is the ability to do analysis in huge corpuses of that data. We can learn things from the data that allow us to provide a lot of societal benefits. There is an enormous amount of patient data, data about about disease, and data about genetics. By putting it together, we can learn about treatment. With enough data, we can look at rare diseases, and learn what has been effective. We could not have done this otherwise.
We can analyze more online information about education and learning, not only MOOCs but lots of learning environments. [Analysis] can tell teachers how to present material effectively, to do comparisons about whether one presentation of information works better than another, or analyze how well assessments work with learning styles.
Certain visual information is comprehensible, certain verbal information is hard to understand. Understanding different learning styles [can enable] develop customized teaching.
The reason this all works is the profound nature of analysis. This is the idea of data fusion, where you take multiple sources of information, combine them, which provides much richer picture of some phenomenon. If you look at patterns of human movements on public transport, or pollution measures, or weather, maybe we can predict dynamics caused by human context.
We can use statistics to do statistics-based pattern recognition on large amounts of data. One of the things that we understand about this statistics-based approach is that it might not be 100% accurate if map down to the individual providing data in these patterns. We have to very careful not to make mistakes about individuals because we make [an inference] about a population.
How do we think about privacy? We looked at it from the point of view of harms. There are a variety of ways in which results of big data can create harm, including inappropriate disclosures [of personal information], potential discrimination against groups, classes, or individuals, and embarrassment to individuals or groups.
We turned to what tech has to offer in helping to reduce harms. We looked at a number of technologies in use now. We looked at a bunch coming down the pike. We looked at several tech in use, some of which become less effective because of pervasivesness [of data] and depth of analytics.
We traditionally have controlled [data] collection. We have seen some data collection from cameras and sensors that people don’t know about. If you don’t know, it’s hard to control.
Tech creates many concerns. We have looked at methods coming down the pike. Some are more robust and responsive. We have a number of draft recommendations that we are still working out.
Part of privacy is protecting the data using security methods. That needs to continue. It needs to be used routinely. Security is not the same as privacy, though security helps to protect privacy. There are a number of approaches that are now used by hand that with sufficient research could be automated could be used more reliably, so they scale.
There needs to be more research and education about education about privacy. Professionals need to understand how to treat privacy concerns anytime they deal with personal data. We need to create a large group of professionals who understand privacy, and privacy concerns, in tech.
Technology alone cannot reduce privacy risks. There has to be a policy as well. It was not our role to say what that policy should be. We need to lead by example by using good privacy protecting practices in what the government does and increasingly what the private sector does.
Bill Press: We tried throughout to think of scenarios and examples. There’s a whole chapter [in the report] devoted explicitly to that.
They range from things being done today, present technology, even though they are not all known to people, to our extrapolations to the outer limits, of what might well happen in next ten years. We tried to balance examples by showing both benefits, they’re great, and they raise challenges, they raise the possibility of new privacy issues.
In another aspect, in Chapter 3, we tried to survey technologies from both sides, with both tech going to bring benefits, those that will protect [people], and also those that will raise concerns.
In our technology survey, we were very much helped by the team at the National Science Foundation. They provided a very clear, detailed outline of where they thought that technology was going.
This was part of our outreach to a large number of experts and members of the public. That doesn’t mean that they agree with our conclusions.
Eric Lander: Can you take everybody through analysis of encryption? Are people using much more? What are the limits?
Graham: The idea behind classical encryption is that when data is stored, when it’s sitting around in a database, let’s say, encryption entangles the representation of the data so that it can’t be read without using a mathematical algorithm and a key to convert a seemingly set of meaningless set of bits into something reasonable.
The same technology, where you convert and change meaningless bits, is used when you send data from one place to another. So, if someone is scanning traffic on internet, you can’t read it. Over the years, we’ve developed pretty robust ways of doing encryption.
The weak link is that to use data, you have to read it, and it becomes unencrypted. Security technologists worry about it being read in the short time.
Encryption technology is vulnerable. The key that unlocks the data is itself vulnerable to theft or getting the wrong user to decrypt.
Both problems of encryption are active topics of research on how to use data without being able to read it. There research on increasingly robustness of encryption, so if a key is disclosed, you haven’t lost everything and you can protect some of data or future encryption of new data. This reduces risk a great deal and is important to use. Encryption alone doesn’t protect.
Unknown Speaker: People read of breaches derived from security. I see a different set of issues of privacy from big data vs those in security. Can you distinguish them?
Bill Press: Privacy and security are different issues. Security is necessary to have good privacy in the technological sense if communications are insecure, they clearly can’t be private. This goes beyond, to where parties that are authorized, in a security sense, to see the information. Privacy is much closer to values. security is much closer to protocols.
Interesting thing is that this is less about purely tech elements — everyone can agree on right protocol, eventually. These things that go beyond and have to do with values.
Last November, I speculated about the potential of a” kernel of a United States Digital Services team built around the DNA of the CFPB: digital by default, open by nature,” incorporating the skills of Presidential Innovation Fellows.
As with the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services Team, 18F is focused on delivery, an area that the UK’s executive director of digital, Mike Bracken, has been relentless in pushing. Here’s how 18F introduced itself:
18F builds effective, user-centric digital services focused on the interaction between government and the people and businesses it serves. We help agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services. Our newly formed organization, within the General Services Administration, encompasses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and an in-house digital delivery team.
18F is a startup within GSA — the agency responsible for government procurement — giving us the power to make small changes with big effect. We’re doers, recruited from industry and the most innovative corners of public service, who are passionate about “hacking” bureaucracy to drive efficiency, transparency, and savings for government agencies and the American people. We make easy things easy, and hard things possible.
“Commencing countdown, engines on!” Meet 18F — a new way of delivering government services. http://t.co/UQD6ViA1FB
The 18F team, amongst other things, has some intriguing, geeky, and even funny titles for government workers, all focused around “agents.” API Agent. Counter Agent. Free Agent. Service Agent. Change Agent. User Agent. Agent Schmagent. Reagent. Agent onGover(). It’s fair to say that their branding, at minimum, sets this “startup in government” apart.
So does their initial foray into social media, now basic building block of digital engagement for government: 18F is on Twitter, Tumblr and Github at launch.
Looks like their office suite is pretty sweet, too.
Partner with agencies to deliver high quality in-house digital services using agile methodologies pioneered by top technology startups.
Rapidly deploy working prototypes using Lean Startup principles to get a desired product into a customer’s hands faster.
Offer digital tools and services that result in governmentwide reuse and savings, allowing agencies to reinvest in their core missions.
We’re transparent about our work, develop in the open, and commit to continuous improvement.
More than five years ago, Anil Dash wrote that the most interesting startup of 2009 was the United States government. Maybe, just maybe, that’s become true again, given the potential impact that the intelligent application of modern development practices could have on the digital government services that hundreds of millions of Americans increasingly expect and depend upon. What I’ve seen so far is promising, from the website itself to an initial pilot project, FBopen, that provides a simple, clean, mobile-friendly interface for small businesses to “search for opportunities to work with the U.S. government.”
Clay Johnson, a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows and founder of a startup focused on improving government IT procurement, offered measured praise for the launch of 18F:
Is it a complete solution to government’s IT woes? No. But, like RFP-IT and FITARA, it’s a component to a larger solution. Much of these problems stem from a faulty way of mitigating risk. The assumption is that by erecting barriers to entry – making it so that the only bets to be made are safe ones – then you can never fail. But evidence shows us something different: by increasing the barriers to competition, you not only increase risk, you also get mediocre results.
The best way for government to mitigate risk is to increase competition, and ensure that companies doing work for the citizen are transparently evaluated based on the merits of their work. Hopefully, 18F can position itself not only as a group of talented people who can deliver, but also an organization that connects agencies to great talent outside of its own walls. To change the mindset of the IT implementation, and convince people inside of government that not only can small teams like 18F do the job, but there are dozens of other small teams that are here to help.
Given the current nation-wide malaise about the U.S. government’s ability to execute on technology project, the only approach that will win 18F accolades after the launch of these modern websites will be the unit’s ability to deliver more of them, along with services to support others. Good luck, team.
The context comes about two thirds in, when the president talked about HealthCare.gov, young “invincibles” and health insurance that costs about as much as a cellphone bill: young people are still not aware of the policy or going to the site.
In other words, it worked. I’ve asked for more comment from the White House on traffic and conversions and will update this post as necessary.
In the meantime, the answers to whether the president should find young audiences online, the White House should be making animated GIFs or the Department of Health and Human Services should be dabbling in doge memes are all a qualified yes: social media and online video are crucial mediums for outreach to a younger generation that has grown up digital, sharing what they read and watch with their friends and family.
Time Magazine’s’s sharp television critic, James Poniewozik, captured why the President of the United States going onto this particular show and adapting his delivery considerably from what Americans might see in other contexts worked better than, say, a Super Bowl interview:
It’s the tone of the comedy as much as the online medium that really targets the young audience Obama is pitching to here. There’s a cringe-humor generation gap; if you’re over a certain age, or simply haven’t watched much of a certain kind of contemporary comedy, you’ll probably watch it thinking that the segment is bombing and Obama is getting legitimately angry. But it’s a good fit for Obama’s sense of humor, which is a little dry and a little cutting–in ways that don’t always play in rooms when there are no ferns present.
Today, the Center for Effective Government released a scorecard for access to information from the 15 United States federal government agencies that received the most Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, focusing upon an analysis of their performance in 2013.
The results of the report (PDF) for the agencies weren’t pretty: if you computed a grade point average from this open government report card (and I did) the federal government would receive a D for its performance. 7 agencies outright failed, with the State Department receiving the worst grade (37%).
The grades were based upon:
How well agencies processed FOIA requests, including the rate of disclosure, fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response
How well the agencies established rules of information access, including the effectiveness of agency polices on withholding information and communications with requestors
Creating user-friendly websites, including features that facilitate the flow of information to citizens, associated online services, and up-to-date reading rooms
It is appropriate and fair to recognize agencies that are fulfilling their obligations under the FOIA. But CEG’s latest report does a huge disservice to all requesters by falsely inflating DOJ’s performance, and ignoring the myriad ways in which that agency — a supposed leader on the FOIA front — ignores, if not flouts, its obligations under the statute.
Last Friday, I spoke with Sean Moulton, the director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, about the contents of the report and the state of FOIA in the federal government, from the status quo to what needs to be done. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows.
What was the methodology behind the report?
Moulton: Our goal was to keep this very quantifiable, very exact, and to try and lay out some specifics. We thought about what the components were necessary for a successful FOIA program. The processing numbers that come out each year are a very rich area for data. They’re extremely important: if you’re not processing quickly and releasing information, you can’t be successful, regardless of other components.
We did think that there are two other areas that are important. First, online services. Let’s face it, the majority of us live online in a big way. It’s a requirement now for agencies to be living there as well. Then, the rules. They’re explained to the agencies and the public, in how they’re going to do things when they get a request. A lot of the agencies have outdated rules. Their current practices may be different, and they may be doing things that the rules don’t say they have to, but without them, they may stop. Consistent rules are essential for consistent long term performance.
A few months back, we released a report that laid out what we felt were best practices for FOIA regulations. We went through a review of dozens of agencies, in terms of their FOIA regulations, and identified key issues, such as communicating with the requester, how you manage confidential business information, how you handle appeals, and how you handle timelines. Then we found inside existing regulations the best ways this was being handled. It really helped us here, when we got to the rules. We used that as our roadmap. We knew agencies were already doing these things, and making that commitment. The main thing we measured under the rules were the items from that best practices report that were common already. If things were universal, we didn’t want to call a best practice, but a normal practice.
Moulton: In general, I think FOIA is improving in this administration. Certainly, the administration itself is investing a great deal of energy and resources in trying to make greater improvements in FOIA, but it’s challenging. None of this has penetrated into national security issues.
I think it’s more of a challenge than the administration thought it would be. It’s different from other things, like open data or better websites. The FOIA process has become entrenched. The biggest open government wins were in areas where they were breaking new ground. There wasn’t a culture or way of doing this or problems that were inherited. They were building from the beginning. With FOIA, there was a long history. Some agencies may see FOIA as some sort of burden, and not part of their mission. They may think of it as a distraction from their mission, in fact. When the Department of Transportation puts out information, it usually gets used in the service of their mission. Many agencies haven’t internalized that.
There’s also the issue of backlogs, bureaucracy, lack of technology or technology that doesn’t work that well — but they’re locked into it.
What about redaction issues? Can you be FOIA compliant without actually honoring the intent of the request?
Moulton: We’re very aware of this as well. The data is just not there to evaluate that. We wish it was. The most you get right now is “fully granted” or “partly granted.” That’s incredibly vague. You can redact 99% or 1% and claim it’s partially redacted, either way. We have no indicator and no data on how much is being released. It’s frustrating, because something like that would help us get a better sense on whether agencies would benefit would new policies
We do know that the percentage of full grants has dropped every year, for 12 years, from the Clinton administration all the way through the Bush administration to today. It’s such a gray area. It’s hard to say whether it’s a terrible thing or a modest change.
Has the Obama administration’s focus on open government made any difference?
Moulton: I think it has. There were a couple of agencies that got together on FOIA reform. The EPA led the team, with the U.S. National Archives and the Commerce Department, to build a new FOIA tool. The outward-facing part of the tool enables a user to go to a single spot, request and track it. Other people could come and search FOIA’ed documents. Behind the scenes, federal workers could use the tool to forward requests back and forth. This fits into what the administration has been trying to do, using technology better in government
Another example, again at the EPA, is where they’ve put together a proactive disclosure website. They got a lot of requests, like if there are inquiries about properties, environmental history, like leaks and spills, and set up a site where you could look up real estate. They did this because they went to FOIA requests and see what people wanted. That has cut down their requests to a certain percentage.
Has there been increasing FOIA demand in recent years, affecting compliance?
Moulton: I do think FOIA requests have been increasing. We’ll see what this next year of data shows. We have seen a pretty significant increase, after a significant decrease in the Bush administration. That may be because this administration keeps speaking about open government, which leads to more hopeful requestors. We fully expect that in 2013, there will be more requests than the prior year.
DHS gets the biggest number of all, but that’s not surprising when we look at the size of it. It’s second biggest agency, after Defense, and the biggest domestic facing agency. when you start talking about things like immigration and FEMA, which go deep into communities and people’s lives, in ways that have a lot impact, that makes sense.
What about the Department of Justice’s record?
Moulton: Well, DoJ got the second highest rating, but we know they have a mixed record. There are things you can’t measure and quantify, in terms of culture and attitude. I do know there were concerns about the online portal, in terms of the turf war between agencies. There were concerns about whether the tech was flexible, in terms of meeting all agency needs. If you want to build a government-wide tool, it needs to have real flexibility. The portal changed the dialogue entirely
Is FOIA performance a sufficient metric to analyze any administration’s performance on open government?
Moulton: We should step back further and look at the broader picture, if we’re going to talk about open government. This administration has done things, outside of FOIA, to try to open up records and data. They’ve built better online tools for people to get information. You have to consider all of those things.
Moulton: That’s a good example. One thing this administration did early on is to identify social media outlets. We should be going there. We can’t make citizens come to us. We should go to where people are. The administration pushed early on that agencies should be able to use Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and so on.
Is this social media use “propaganda,” as some members of the media have suggested?
Moulton: That’s really hard to decide. I think it can result in that. It has the potential to be misused to sidestep the media, and not have good interaction with the media, which is another important outlet. People get a lot of their information from the media. Government needs to have good relationship.
I don’t think that’s the intention, though, just as under Clinton, when they started setting up websites for the first time. That’s what the Internet is for: sharing information. That’s what social media can be used for, so let’s use what’s there.