Some unconferences are codathons. Others focus on citizen engagement and Congress.
This weekend’s Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C. brought together technologists, journalists, developers, advocates for open data, open government and open data for discussions, case studies, workshops and even, as Micah Sifry put it, some secular colloquy.
Transparency Camp came at a time of immense foment in Washington and the country beyond. A historic healthcare reform had just been signed into law, including an overhaul of student loans. Midterm elections in Congress loom at the end of the year. And the nation’s economy continues towards an uncertain future, perhaps of jobless recovery, after the Great Recession.
The Sunlight Foundation’s engagement director, Jake Brewer, kicked off the morning by asking how much had changed around government transparency since the last Transparency Camp. Make sure to read David “Oso” Sasaki’s notes from Transparency Camp for a superb narrative of his Saturday. (Sasaki is the Director of Rising Voices, a global citizen media outreach initiative of Global Voices Online.)
There have been no shortage of transparency wins over that time, as the video embedded below attests. Projects like Earmarkwatch.org, OpenCongress.org or Punch Clock Map all show the potential for the Web to enable government transparency.
In 2010, there are more reasons to believe government transparency and open government will see more rapid advancement. As the co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, Ellen Miller, pointed out in her introduction, there are more significant legislative efforts underway around transparency. The The Public Online Information Act (POIA), HR 4858, introduced by Rep. Steve Israel, would embraces a new formula for transparency: “public equals online.” And an omnibus ethics bill, HR 4983, would “amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to improve access to information in the legislative and executive branches.”
In looking at the role of this unconference in that context, the Director of Sunlight Labs, Clay Johnson, posed three big challenges for Transparency Camp:
- An Open Data Playbook. Clay described that as “an instruction manual for people inside government to teach them how to open their data
- A list of all jurisdictions and elected officials around the country
- A data exchange format for data catalogs, in a model like Google did with GTFS.
The success or failure of Transparency Camp can’t be measured by those metrics alone, however, although whether Johnson’s challenges are met by the community are absolutely part of the story of this weekend.
Identity and Government
Another excellent session at Transparency Camp came from Heather West and Kaliya Hamlin, aka @IdentityWoman. I had considerable context for their talk, given my coverage of OpenID and the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) and trust frameworks, specifically regarding the OIX trust framework as used for citizen-to-government authentication.
A key element of OIX, as Hamlin pointed out, was the standardization of online privacy principles promulgated though IDManagement.gov. Another important part of the identity picture is Microsoft’s release of part of the intellectual property for its U-Prove ID tokens under Open Specifcation, as detailed at credentica.com.
The Open Government Directive, Datasets and Data.gov
When the “three words” from the unconference were synthesized into a “Wordle” for Transparency Camp, four words emerged as the most powerful themes:
Open, government, transparency and, most of all, data.
The Open Government Directive (OGI) was a significant moment in American history, in terms of putting the data of operations into a format and venue where developers could access and parse it: data.gov.
Now that the resource is up, however, there are outstanding concerns about data quality, frequency and, most pertinently, utility. Andrew McLaughlin, the “Deputy Chief Nerd @ the White House” (aka deputy US chief technology officer), suggested that “to get reluctant agencies to embrace data sharing, focus on “high-reward”, not “high-value”, datasets.”
When asked if new guidance was needed, since “high-value datasets” for Data.gov are written into the OGI, McLaughlin responded that “some agencies will use a citizen-utility metric for prioritizing scarce resources. Others will focus on datasets that will are rapidly doable, to help overcome resistance and ease culture change. Both ways of defining “high-value” make sense.” The Venn diagram above illustrates how that might look.
McLaughlin also acknowledged a feature request for data.gov and apps.gov from the Transparency Camp community: more and better metadata, like data quality qualifiers or FISMA compliance status.
At the In Code We Trust: Open Government in New York
My favorite session for the day was a case study of open government featuring the New York Senate. With a nod to Lawrence Lessig, Noel Hidalgo, Sheldon Rampton and Mark Head showed precisely how law could be turned to code. I livestreamed “In Code We Trust” on uStream. After poor transparency ratings, a broad swath of changes to the New York state senate websites was implemented over the past year. New York was the first state senate to adopt Creative Commons for its intellectual property.
Photo Credit: Sheldon Rampton by Noel Hidalgo.]
The New York state senate is integrating open government with social media (see @NYSenate), live video, YouTube and code, at Github.com/NYSenateCIO. I saw Mark Heead, a developer, looked up a bill using the New York Senate API with an application on his smartphone. That API is behind a law browser for New York state legislation. The In Code We Trust Transparency Camp session is archived at uStream.
Health Information Technology
One of the basic principles of an unconference is the “law of two feet.” If you don’t like a session, you move. You own your own experience. Given that livestreamed parts of Transperency Camp, I also “voted with my feed,” moving my window to the Internet along with my body. After a session on the relationship of open government descended into somewhat unproductive discussion about open policy, I moved over to the healthcare information technology (HIT) session, which I recorded in part. Given the billions of dollars that will be flowing into healthcare IT over the next few years, as provisions of the Recovery Act are implemented, this was an important discussion.
Brian Behlendorf, a notable open source technologist, led the session. There’s now an Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to direct action, available on the Web at HealthIT.gov or on Twitter at @ONC_HealthIT. As Andrew McLaughlin noted, Brian Ahier maintains a great blog on health IT, including details on how the healthcare reform bill affects HIT.
Local Government and the Digital Divide
Another excellent session featured discussions about how transparency is coming to people closer to home.
OpenMuni.org provides some perspective on that effort. The Ideascale model of crowdsourced recommendations for better efficiency and governance has been applied to local government, at least in beta, at Localocracy. The first pilot has been put into action at Amherst, Massachusetts.
The local government session at Transparency Camp was also fortunate to have the D.C. CTO, Bryan Sivek, and staff from @octolabs present.
Sivek defined his role as integral to both enabling better services online, like the city resource request center at 311.dc.gov, finding efficiencies for government through IT, and in bringing more citizens the benefit of connectivity. He illuminated a yawning gap in Internet use, observing that ”DC has a huge issue with the digital divide. In Wards 5, 7 and 8, 36% of the people are connected.”
One of the stories of the digital divide in D.C. is told at InternetForEveryone.com. The importance of offering technological resources to those without access at home was evidenced by recent research showing that nearly one third of the United States population uses public library computers for Internet access.
Bryan Sivek is now looking for feedback on how to use technology better in the District, elements of which are evidenced at track.dc.gov.
Odds, Ends, Resources and Takeaways
I was reminded of a great travel resource, FlyOnTime.us, and learned about a new one for Washington, ParkItDC.com.
I wish the former existed for Amtrak.
I learned about data and visualizations of local campaign spending at FollowTheMoney.org and government transparency at OpenSecrets.org.
Most of all, I was reminded by how many brilliant, passionate and engaged people are working to improve government transparency and efficiency through technology, collaboration and advocacy.
The Flickr pool features many of the faces.
I look forward to learning more from others about what happened on day two of Transparency Camp.
Update: The Sunlight Foundation posted a video of Transparency Camp attendees on April 1.