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Open Government: Beth Noveck at Transparent Text

Beth Noveck, formerly of New York Law School, is now the deputy CTO in the Obama administration in charge of the Open Government initiative. Explaning this role and the administration’s vision for open government, she’s the opening keynote speaker at today’s Transparent Text conference at IBM’s research center in Cambridge, MA.

The Obama administration has made big promises about making government more transparent and open – there’s been both enthusiasm about govenment willingness to make data available (information released at recovery.gov, for instance) and frustration that some data is being kept as private as in previous administrations (particularly information on terrorism and national security.) Noveck explains that the goal of open government is much broader than releasing data – we need to enable much broader participation in governing as well. She offers two major challenges – “transition to open and collaborative ways of working”, and “make it easy and cost-effective for any agency to implement open government priorities,” with implications for:

– open data
– open spending
– open participation
– open expertise and peer review
– open grantmaking
– open problem-solving

Beth is hoping for “massively distributed parallel action,” as we saw during the Presidential campaign, when activists on the campaigns planned and executed strategies that were participatory and not always centrally controlled. She notes that the President has challenged people to collaborate and find solutions: “I ran for President because I believe that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.”

For the community here, those challenges appear to involve finding ways to visualize and interpret data made available by the government. She explains that the plans are not so much to focus on building tools, but to release lots of raw data and let communities find ways to make sense of them. But the vision of open government goes beyond data – she mentions initiatives to get citizens to participate in fixing school science labs, leading entrepreneurship training and installing solar panels… something of a geeky grab-bag of ideas.

It’s clear that the move towards more open government is a long and gradual process that requires a lot of buy-in – several times, Beth mentions the need to work with a constituency inside government to get their cooperation so that change is possible. The intentions, she assures us, are the right ones, quoting the President on the subject of releasing White House visitor logs: “We must be transparent, even at the cost of personal embarrasment.” So why can’t we get those logs in realtime? Beth explains that the White House visitor log system is written in circa-1972 COBOL, and that the current challenge is finding a way to release names without releasing social security numbers. (Hey Beth, I think I can code a Perl wrapper to help you with that… Beth later clarifies that this is a joke, then wonders if the system is actually in FORTRAN.) The point is that the plans for openness need to filter through government departments, which then have to tackle practical challenges, each of which can slow a process down.

Beth offers te suggestion that people seeking for data sets see themselves as collaborators with the government in making information visible and useful, not as legal opponents. She cites the case of an organization which had demanded a data set via FOIA, and hadn’t had their request considered within a year. She met with the organization, encouraged them to send a single page letter (rather than their 60 page FOIA request) and explain how they were going to visualize the data. They got a response within a day – the agency was enthusiastic about sharing the information, but the data was on index cards in a shoebox. Would the group be willing to send over some interns to key it in? She suggests that we not assume bad faith, but realize that sometimes we’re dealing with agencies that are deeply behind the times in terms of information resources.

I was especially pleased to hear Beth talking about bottom-up initiatives within government departments, not just outside. While she talked at some length about Netflix-style prizes for innovation in data visualization and sharing, she also talked about decidedly low-tech efforts to get input, like suggestion boxes in government departments. A process at the VA got 8,000 suggestions from a department of 19,000 workers – she suggests that many of the key ideas for opening government may come from people who are already inside government departments and know what steps need to be taken to release critical data and enable more participation.

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