The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing today on “E-Government 2.0: Improving Innovation, Collaboration, and Access.” Written testimony from the witnesses is available here. Because the Senate doesn’t make available the audio or video of hearings on their own sites, I made sure to capture it and it’s available here as an MP3 for your listening pleasure.
The impetus for the hearing is the reauthorization bill for the E-Government Act that, as I wrote about earlier, includes new requirements on federal websites that would make them more easily indexed by commercial search engines such as Google. Joe Lieberman chaired the hearing and witnesses were Karen Evans, Administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology a OMB, John Needham of Google, Ari Schwartz of CDT, and a clean-shaven Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Here are some highlights from the hearing:
- Announced that today he and Sen. Susan Collins are introducing legislation that would make Congresional Research Service reports publicly available. Today they’re only officially available to members of Congress, although you can get your hands on them if you’re subscribed to a commercial service such as Congress Daily. For the rest of us, CDT has been running a wonderful service called OpenCRS.com that houses CRS docs that citizens have gotten their members of Congress to release.
- Made a point to note that Senate votes are not made available in XML and says he will work to change that.
- I’m not sure I understood her very well. I need to go back and read her testimony. That said she mostly discussed the successes of the government’s e-gov initiative. Unfortunately, I think these are probably only relative successes. She cited number of visits to the various websites as a measure of success. I’m not sure what knowing that, say, 50 million visitors went to Regulations.gov last year tells me. I’ve explained the problems with these metrics before here.
- Made the case for mandating the Google sitemap protocol. This is a way for a site to tell a search engine crawlers what pages are on the site. According to Needham, information from about 2,000 federal websites isn’t indexed by Google. In large part this has to do with information hidden in databases that search engine spiders can’t crawl. The reason they can’t crawl the databases is because there is not index of documents available, instead information is only presented after a keyword query. (Here’s Google’s much better explanation.) Think about the FCC’s docketing system, for example. I wrote about this problem here.
- Announced a new study by CDT and OMB Watch that shows that government website information often can’t be found through commercial search engines–what most people use to find data.
- Generally explained what a wiki is and how Wikipedia works. Talked about how the intelligence community is using wikis to share information. The interesting bits came in Q&A in which he shared a bit of insight learned from Wikipedia to how government should handle taking public comments on regulations. Ari Schartz made a great point comparing what happens in the discussion pages of Wikipedia to what should be happening in a public comment period.
Other interesting bits
- Lieberman asks Evans to explain why Regulations.gov isn’t indexed by Google. She says it should be and they’re working on it.
- Wales made the point that another problem of having information hidden behind databases you have to query is that when you do get the page you want it often has a dynamic URL that you can’t bookmark or reference (in Wikipedia for example).
- Sen. Akaka asks Evans what she’s doing to make government information online in understandable plain English and not bureaucratic speak. (This questions is hilarious given that I couldn’t understand her testimony.) She says they make available toolkits to help with this. She also says that with regards to the forthcoming OMB earmarks database, there will be a wiki that will allow users to give feedback on the website, including its language. She says there will be an event tomorrow announcing (launching?) the database.
- NB: Ari discussed privacy and “privacy impact statements” several times, but that’s not my bag. Maybe Harper will grace us with his thoughts on these.
UPDATE: Seamus Hughes of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee brings to my attention the fact that video of the hearing is indeed available on the committee’s website. You can watch it here. My bad for not noticing that. I’m glad to see the committee makes sure their data is online. They should certainly be commended for that. Now to be a stickler: It’s interesting that they choose to offer the video in RealVideo, a proprietary format, rather than in an open standard. Open over proprietary formats is one of the new Open Data Principles recently announced by a working group of e-transparency advocates.