Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Amplify accountability, technology to boost open government

by Matt Rosenberg March 10th, 2012

Don’t confuse government “open data” with open government, warn two graduate students from Princeton and Yale in a new paper. Harlan Yu and David Robinson say open data may actually improve government transparency but it also:

…might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, (and) have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site — even if it does not become more accountable or transparent….Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

What open government needs to look like in the coming decade and beyond involves at least three core considerations: 1) inclusive dialog around potential changes to laws on open records and open meetings; 2) the melding of Internet and mobile technologies with ideals of government accountability; and 3) nourishment for a reformulated news and information ecosystem to fulfill the public interest with robust accountability-driven reporting, teaching and collaboration. We’re going to focus here mainly on 2), and a bit on 3).

Voluntary government disclosure is growing
Baseline voluntary government transparency utilizing the Internet has grown impressively. A wide array of meeting documents, special reports and data are routinely posted online by governments at all levels, in the U.S.

Without the filing of any public records requests it is possible to report – using original and recent government documents “picked from the trees at the edge of the orchard” – on stories such as:

Through voluntary government disclosure online we can also learn about:

The accountability potential of freely released government information is also gleaned from so-called “open access” scientific journals in articles authored by government researchers. Here we see, for instance, that:

Robots, aggregators, broccoli and cheese sauce
Robots now write articles from baseball box scores, and aggregation pays while original content creation has a dicey economic future. But the aggregators and the public do want broccoli to go with their cheese sauce. Rendering comprehensible these valuable yet often oblique government source materials requires professional research and journalism skills that in turn require funding. (We’ll go down this rabbit hole another time).

Does open data open doors?
In theory, utilization of government data in its raw form offers a seemingly simpler “do it yourself approach” and so government “data sites” are increasingly in vogue. The City of Seattle has one, as does King County, Washington State, Oregon, and even the government of Kenya. Many other major U.S. cities and states, and nations do, too. One prominent designer of government open data sites is a Seattle-based company named Socrata, which deserves credit for its work to help public servants “liberate” their data for the public good.

But the intermediary role of civic-minded application developers is key, and unassured. They must translate data sets into mobile and Web apps, and data visualizations we can all use. Even then, meaning isn’t always evident, accenting the need for more actual reporting which draws on public data and public records at a time when legacy media resources continue to contract.

It’s useful to apply the core open government principles of performance measurement and accountability to open data. How many government data sets give rise to useful visualizations and where can these be consolidated and cataloged? How many “open data” packages inform public service reporting? How many Web-posted government data sets actually result in creation of apps? How useful are those apps? Are they kept current, and built out to a reasonable degree? Do they even survive?

Last year, a promising Google Maps-based open data app for mobile and the Web was launched, called Dinegerous, conveying restaurant inspection data from Public Health Seattle-King County. It provides a quick overview of the health inspection record of each establishment in the department’s own online database which lacks the graphical user interface. Dinegerous is a powerful example of how government data can be transformed into a consumer tool. Who doesn’t want to do their best to avoid food poisoning when eating out?

Knight plans “editable catalog” of civic apps, including reviews
To gauge the utility of civic apps, taking inventory of what’s out there is a good place to start. The Knight Foundation has announced it will unveil this spring the Engagement Commons, a “dynamic wiki, an editable catalog of applications that foster civic engagement” including for each: app reviews, tech specs, and locations where in use.

Needles in the haystack
In some cases, government data or records are only grudgingly daylighted online, in ways that beg greater ease of use and support the open data imperative. Consider the online compendium of state disciplinary actions against public school teachers provided by the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. These include cases of sexual relationships between teachers and students and other forms of professional misconduct. There’s a clear public interest in having the documents be accessible as possible. But curiously, the only way to approach this documents database is alphabetically, by teacher. No descending date view, no by-school-district view – thus mandating a “needle in the haystack” approach if currency and locale are a concern. An inquiry from a reporter about this prompted the ineffable reply, “no one’s ever asked about that before.” What to do? Allow qualified developers full access to the kept-current holdings so they can apply tagging protocols and build tools which extract the reports and order them by specified criteria, such as month, year, and location.

Beyond open data as typically conceived, several other promising technology strategies are surfacing in the U.S. Congress and provide fodder for state legislatures and stakeholders interested in making government more open and accountable. The Congressional Facebook Hackathon late last year was less about Facebook and hacking per say than, as one observer put it, “government getting more geeky.” The session involving developers, legislative staff and transparency stakeholders resulted in a meaty final report which included first-stage proposals for:

  • Greater legislative transparency through online real-time bill mark-up;
  • Online disclosure of exact timing and authorship of legislative amendments;
  • Committee hearings that are crowd-sourced online;
  • Secure online handling of constituent casework; and
  • Integration of legislator social media accounts with their constituent email processes.

TVW steps up, with Scout
In Washington, state government is already getting geekier, but accessibly so. The non-profit news channel TVW has unveiled Scout, an interactive tool which permits users to have delivered to them video of legislative or committee proceedings on selected bills and topic areas. In addition, TVW video of bill hearings in committee were recently added as a built-in extra to all bill information pages at the legislature’s site. Thanks to special and simple user features, videos of full committee hearings which are appended to the online bill pages can be quickly searched and viewed, and then re-posted to blog or social media accounts with time settings narrowed to hone in on testimony regarding just one measure. No more lamely adding, “Go to 1:09:29 to find the testimony on HB 2213.”

Wanted: accountability-focused, records-driven reporting
Meanwhile, the more traditional open government accountability agenda necessitates a ramp-up in outcomes-based reporting on vertical topics (education, transportation, government finance, public health, social services, ethics, and more) that’s girded by government documents and data typically not put online at present. Office of Internal Audit investigative reports at the University of Washington are not posted online but can be had through requests filed under the Washington Public Records Act. A similar approach is taken by the King County Ombudsman’s Office. Resulting stories might disclose:

Another type of open government accountability reporting starts with a germ or two of data online but requires more digging. A UW police crime log provides a one-line tipoff and with some enterprise a story develops about a hate crime reported in a campus dorm. A state appeals court ruling posted online prompts a deeper look at how a well-connected City of Seattle employee managed to stay on the public payroll even after a felony conviction for first-degree perjury.

More sunshine needed on government contracting
Topic-wise, a core focus for more open and accountable government should be the daylighting of contracting-related government source documents online. Not so much janitorial and motor pool supplies; more the consultants working to devise a cost-efficient employee pension plan, or evaluate police staffing levels, and transportation plans. What do they actually produce, how is their work evaluated by city managers, and is their advice actually followed? In a periodiocally-updated .pdf file found under the heading “Consultant Contract Search” at the Web page of the City of Seattle purchasing division, you can scan summary descriptions of current and recently-closed consulting contracts. It’s a step in the right direction and provides the basis for selective public records requests.

Over time, great benefits in contractor performance and public trust would accrue from taking it a big step further, to a public-facing database which links actual consultant contract documents, written deliverables and city performance evaluations – and includes built in shortcuts to the city’s existing campaign contributions database kept by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, so that users can quickly see if consultant company principals are also helping fund campaigns of city officeholders or ballot measures.

Machine readable documents
Part of the build would require adoption of machine readable document forms so that, for instance, the consultant contract performance evaluations which according to city sources often sit uncompleted in a manager’s drawer and then hide away from public view unless requested under open records laws, would instead be Web-ready after completion on a computer. No more printing out and scanning documents into .pdfs.

Common standards for site architecture, IT back end
User experience is another issue. Across a public-facing city government Web enterprise or that of a county or state government, a common information architecture should be employed so we can find the same kinds of things in the same places and save time. Related concerns include the continued use of outdated, inflexible legacy IT architectures, some dating to the 70s, and stove-piping of IT solutions, department by department.

From 90-9-1 to 75-15-10
Combine these and other suggestions and a plan begins to emerge for breathing new life into open government. But at a time of continuing limits on public resources, we’ll all have to be part of the solution. So the “90-9-1″ rule will have to change. That’s the common seat-of-the-pants measure of engagement in the civic square, especially at online community news sites. Ninety percent of the participants are quiet viewers, or “lurkers” only; nine percent contribute occasionally, but only one percent are frequent contributors.

As regions struggle to replace the declining legacy news media resources which used to help ensure healthy government accountability, 90-9-1 needs to shift closer to 75-15-10. One piece of that is well articulated by USC communications and journalism prof Henry Jenkins, who argues topical experts including scientists and engineers and artists motivated by societal and policy concerns have to learn to stand and deliver their own priority news and analysis in Plain English and in popular forums precisely because the specialized topic reporters of yore on whom they previously depended for this function are going largely the way of the Dodo.

The open government-civic engagement renaissance best begins at the local level, with training the trainers and cataloging how to make a difference. Making the business case to government for greater voluntary transparency will be key. So will teaching citizen activists and interested professionals – sometimes one and the same – what to do with timely news and insights, and important findings gained through public records requests. Self-publishing, and basic audio and video production are the new political currency.

In the end, transparency is only a means to an end. It’s what we actually do with it – how often and how effectively – that matters most.


Matt Rosenberg is Founder and Editor of Public Data Ferret, a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

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