Collaboration in Civic Spheres

For Arab Journos in Seattle: OpenGov Best Practices

by November 11th, 2013

Visiting Seattle right now are 19 Arab journalists focused on transparency, media and civic life. The U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program and the World Affairs Council of Seattle are coordinating. I’m honored to have been asked to present to them Nov. 11 and to leave time for conversation, I’ve compiled this post for them – and others – illustrating sources and output of Public Data Ferret, a non-partisan Seattle-based news project that digs for sub-rosa online government documents and data sets. I also share some Recommendations for Global Open Government

Using special sources available to all, we craft original stories which are then archived by jurisdiction and topic in a special database, and distributed via legacy and social media. We always link to full source documents. Governments are making more and more documents and data available voluntarily, online, in the U.S. and elsewhere. They know that by doing so they can build trust, broaden public knowledge and participation, and perhaps also avoid the expense of staff hours required to gather information on demand.

Program Scope
We also teach and train student and community volunteers who contribute content; participate in panel discussions and conferences, and publish transparency policy analyses in outside venues. Public Data Ferret is a program of the 501c3 non-profit Public Eye Northwest.

We are supported by private donors, and earned revenues from communications consulting. We maintain total editorial control over what appears at Public Data Ferret, and how it is written. After three years, we are gratefully beginning to reach financial sustainability.

Why Do This?
Our motivation for starting the Public Data Ferret project was that:

  • traditional news media and particularly coverage of government are shrinking dramatically and need to be supplemented with high-quality lean start-ups; and that…..
  • there is a growing need for “post-partisan” public affairs reporting, which is based on objective data rather than strong political opinion. Users of the Ferret article database include local taxpayers, issue activists, students, teachers, businesses, government and media.

  • Connectivity
    Our work has gained broad coverage through other media; and we have received many testimonials from journalists, advocates, educators, business people and public officials.

    Develop Shared Resource Guides to Public Documents and Data
    To find material we often use our own continually updated resource guides to public documents and data. These include guides to sources from the U.S. government; Washington State; King County regional governments; the City of Seattle; and local governments across Washington State which follow the “best practice” of putting individual links to individual public documents in their online meeting agendas, thus making it much easier for bloggers and online reporters to link to source materials.

    Drilling Down – Into Online Source Materials
    Let’s examine some of the online sources of government documents and data that have been most helpful for Public Data Ferret, and some of the resulting news articles.

    The ‘PubMed’ Index – National Institutes of Health
    Public health reporting is enriched by the online reference library called Pub Med, sponsored by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Health. A recent find there led to our article, “Prescription Pot Could Be A Real Bummer, UW Doc Argues.”

    Context on Medical Marijuana – Health Research & Public Debate
    In a medical journal article, the doctor, who is an expert in addiction and psychiatry from the government-funded University of Washington and the Puget Sound Veterans Administration, reviewed the medical literature and called for great caution in prescribing medical marijuana for chronic pain, something that is currently legal in Washington State. The debate is very current because Washington is now right in the middle of implementing legalized recreational use of marijuana following 2012 voter approval, and new, tighter restrictions have already been proposed on medical marijuana as a result.

    Important to “Connect The Dots”
    Our method includes “connecting the dots.” It turns out this was not the first warning issued by UW doctors about legally consuming marijuana either for medical or recreational purposes. In our recent story we linked to a related report we did earlier this year, which emphasized another detailed warning from a UW researcher, and also contained links to six other government or university studies on the health hazards of smoking marijuana, something that is now even more socially acceptable following its legalization for recreational use in Washington State.

    PubMed User Tips & “Open Science” Values
    Our searches at Pub Med usually use the keyword “Seattle,” or “King County” which ensures that abstracts of any new public health articles by researchers from the University of Washington or King County, on any topic, will be found. We also use the search term “Washington State.” Searching by topic is another option, such as marijuana. The results are displayed in reverse-date order so you get the most recent entries first.

    The Open Science Imperative
    This specialized search engine indexes abstracts and sometimes free full-text versions of scholarly articles in “open access” or “open science” publications. If only an abstract is available, we contact the author by email and explain our project, and ask to be emailed a free, full-text copy. Some comply, some don’t. If we can’t get a free full-text copy, we will not do our own article on the findings.

    Our Washington State+Open Science archive at Public Data Ferret provides links to many examples of our work based on articles found through Pub Med and similar sources, such as the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

    Centers for Disease Control’s “Wonder” Database
    The CDC also has a database called “CDC Wonder” on disease and death rates by U.S. state since 1999, and we have been able to use it to generate original, Washington-specific stories with mapped data summaries, such as “Washington Tops U.S. in 12-year Alzheimers Death Rates,” and “WA Led U.S. in Breast Cancer for Most Recent Year Reported.” This last story included links to two others we did on related risk factors: “Study: Pre-pregnancy Drinking Boosts Breast Cancer Risks;” and “UW-Group Health Study: Some Pills Raise Breast Cancer Risk.”

    More on how to do Open Science-based reporting in this tutorial we published.

    Data Visualization
    Another archive is for data visualizations. Among those we’ve created, some employ Tableau software and others Google Public Data Explorer. Among the particularly interactive ones are those showing:

  • standardized academic achievement testing results in Seattle public schools
  • skin cancer rates by U.S. state, in relation to two risk factors
  • abortion and fertility rates by Washington county 1997-2011
  • rates of reported property crime and violent crime by U.S. state 1960-2011
  • and the association by nation between decreasing fertility rates and greater life expectancies

  • Effective Government Management, of Budgets and Programs
    A variety of government information sources facilitate oversight and accountability reporting. Public Data Ferret’s U.S. Government+Management archive includes numerous stories about difficulties in efficiently overseeing federal spending and programs. One recent example is our article, “CRS: U.S. Improper Payments At Least $688 BIllion Since 2004.” This story was also enriched by additional research we found using a valuable U.S. government disclosure site called, which tracks improper payments on an agency-by-agency basis, as mandated by federal law.

    NGO Liberates Hidden Government Reports From CRS, Regularly
    “CRS” stands for the Congressional Research Service, which is an independent policy analysis arm reporting to the U.S. Congress. Incongruously, Congress has steadfastly refused to let CRS directly make its work available to the public, even though CRS is taxpayer-funded. However an NGO, the Federation of American Scientists, does post online most CRS reports within days of release, thanks to cooperative sources inside the agency.

    This is an institutionalized, and clearly tolerated example of “leaking” documents, which serves the public interest. Here is the main FAS index of CRS reports, and a particularly useful subsection titled “miscellaneous topics.”

    Washington State Oversight
    Our Washington State+Management archive includes stories reported with the aid of many different online sources.

    One is the regularly-updated compendium of oversight reports issued by the Washington State Auditor’s Office (SAO). Freshened with new content every Monday morning, the SAO’s site has many dry and unremarkable reports about whether or not proper financial reporting procedures are being followed by local and regional governments in Washington state.

    But other reports are more newsworthy; often these are so-called “whistleblower investigation reports,” or fraud reports. SAO performance audits examine how well state or regional agencies are fulfilling their mission and duties.

    Stories based on Washington State Auditor Reports
    Some stories we have published based on SAO reports include:

  • Sound Transit Watchdogs Too Much Like Lapdogs, Says Audit
  • Auditor Estimates $73 Million in WA Childcare Overpayments
  • Doing Biz With Washington State Too Tricky, Audit Says
  • State Could Save $180 Million Each Two years in K-12 Employee Health Costs

  • The Seattle+Management archive includes stories developed from SAO reports and other sources, including,:

  • State Audit: Seattle Schools Facilities Rental Program in Disarray
  • 1,000 Items Including Laptops Vanish From Seattle Public Schools
  • Connected Seattle City Worker Stayed on Payroll After Felony

  • Transportation, Education, Finance & Budget
    There are many other ways to use the Public Data Ferret archive, mainly by combining different jurisdiction and topic search keywords. For example:

  • Washington State+Transportation or Washington State+Education
  • King County+Public Health
  • or U.S. Government+Finance/Budget

  • Seattle City Council Committee Meeting Agendas
    At the local level, one example of voluntary government transparency which sometimes yields newsworthy stories are the meeting agendas of the legislative committees of the Seattle City Council. They are accessed from a central hub and include embedded links to documents explaining the agenda items for each meeting. Examples of related stories we have done include:

  • Rasmussen: Seattle Needs Transpo Levy Renewal or Increase
  • Seattle Bill Would Restrict Employer Use of Criminal Histories
  • City of Seattle Employee Pensions Underfunded By $1 Billion

  • Recommendations for Global Open Government
    There is no “One Size Fits All” approach to government transparency. Conditions vary widely between cities and states, and particularly between countries. But aided by the Internet, social media and mobile technologies, there is also growing impetus supporting fair and free elections; broadened human rights; freedom of the press; plus heightened expectations of corruption-free, transparent governance; government performance measurement; and accountability.

    With that in mind, NGOs, citizens and governments should work together to advance the following objectives.

  • Pass meaningful laws mandating detailed public disclosure at government Web sites, including documents and data revealing all prospective, planned and completed government spending and budget decisions, all ethics standards and investigations, political campaign funding, and all substantive aspects of public policy development and implementation.
  • Ensure laws are approved which require advance public notice of the meetings of all elected bodies, and that the meetings are open for the public and media to attend. Video filming and audio recording of public meetings should be proactively permitted and safeguarded by law, and if resources permit, governments themselves should regularly videotape and post online gavel-to-gavel video of public meetings and hearings.
  • Establish regular and incisive performance evaluation mechanisms for governments in key areas such as budget and finance, courts, anti-corruption, education, transportation, agriculture, technology, business regulation, public health, and more. Ensure that resulting reports are understandable and honest – and are easily and widely available to the public and the press. Consider whether a formal and broadly inclusive government strategic planning process can help drive the setting and tracking of performance goals.
  • Continue to share information and work in new ways to establish national and global cultures of concern – and zero tolerance – for intimidation of news reporters, commentators, and news entities. Help support NGOs which facilitate sharing of best practices in data reporting and investigative reporting, and which continue to develop new platforms, tools and partnerships to aid in the global development of an unfettered free press, human rights, and robust government transparency.
  • Develop “templates for transparency” for national, state, and local governments of different size categories, so they will be able to develop capacity to provide “open data.”
  • Where “open data” initiatives have been launched, work to make more of the resulting public data downloadable, and directly revealing of progress – or the lack of it – on identified government performance goals.
  • Do not park “open data” in so-called “open data sites” because they are too often used more symbolically than substantively. Instead, integrate open data across the online government enterprise, by agency, in a uniform and predictable manner centered on end-users who may not have advanced technical skills.
  • Open data must be for the electorate, not the elite.

    Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

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