Princeton Paper on Government Transparency

by on June 2, 2008 · 10 comments

I haven’t had time to read it yet, but Princeton’s IT Policy Center has a new paper out about open file formats and government transparency that’s worth checking out:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

In the current Presidential cycle, all three candidates have indicated that their think the federal government could make better use of the Internet. Barack Obama’s platform explicitly endorses “making government data available online in universally accessible formats.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, remarked that she wants to see much more government information online. John McCain, although expressing excitement about the Internet, has allowed that he would like to delegate the issue, possible to a vice-president.

But the situation to which these candidates are responding — the wide gap between the exciting uses of Internet technology by private parties, on the one hand, and the government’s lagging technical infrastructure on the other — is not new. The federal government has shown itself consistently unable to keep pace with the fast-evolving power of the Internet.

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

The paper cites our own Jerry Brito, who has done some great work in the same vein, in several places.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    The private sector has the same problem. It’s easier to demo a “company portal” to your Vice President of Marketing than it is to show up a code repository or an RSS feed.

  • dmarti

    The private sector has the same problem. It’s easier to demo a “company portal” to your Vice President of Marketing than it is to show up a code repository or an RSS feed.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Don,

    You’re comparing two separate things. The portal is what the VP gets to interact with, the RSS is the data stream for the content. It’s like trying to show off gas to a car buyer and get them impressed with your product. To the VP, the novelty of the RSS is when you tell them in passing that in that format the content can be used by a myriad number of company assets and customers without modification—more bang for the corporate buck.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    Don,

    You’re comparing two separate things. The portal is what the VP gets to interact with, the RSS is the data stream for the content. It’s like trying to show off gas to a car buyer and get them impressed with your product. To the VP, the novelty of the RSS is when you tell them in passing that in that format the content can be used by a myriad number of company assets and customers without modification—more bang for the corporate buck.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    FYI – OpenRegulations.org is a site I threw up a while back that serves as an alternative interface to the government’s Regulations.gov. Unfortunately, it broke a few months ago and I hadn’t been able to fix it. The site was cited in the Princeton paper and it gave me motivation to finally figure out what was wrong and fix it. So, it’s fixed. Check it out. The major improvement it offers over the official site is that it offers per-agency RSS feeds rather than the one firehose feed the government offers.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    FYI – OpenRegulations.org is a site I threw up a while back that serves as an alternative interface to the government’s Regulations.gov. Unfortunately, it broke a few months ago and I hadn’t been able to fix it. The site was cited in the Princeton paper and it gave me motivation to finally figure out what was wrong and fix it. So, it’s fixed. Check it out. The major improvement it offers over the official site is that it offers per-agency RSS feeds rather than the one firehose feed the government offers.

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