Open Government

The prospect of government transparency is very important to me. I firmly believe that best way to protect the integrity of our union is by the populace taking a more active role in their own governance. This is why I have always been such a supporter of GovTrack, though I have had to become increasingly selective on what events I track (I limit to activity of my own legislators, a few classes of issues, and the occasional specific Bill). It was the key part of Obama’s electoral platform that I supported, though there was plenty with his candidacy that I did not. We, the people, require more data to be able to participate meaningfully with the government.

Incidentally, the Open Government book, a collection of essays from a wide variety of people trying to better the interaction of the public with government, was driven in large part by the promises made by Obama during his campaign, and the efforts begun shortly after his election, like data.gov. The book was published just over 1 year ago, and at that time, nearly every single contributor felt that the efforts to date were disappointing. I doubt many people’s minds have changed much in this regard.

Now, I work for a state institution, and I’ve made it a goal to make our data more accessible. I understand that it’s hard, but the data that I expose is unquestionably public, has been available in the past (I’m just trying to make it better), and I have a lot fewer roadblocks to the work I’m doing than I suspect most people do. But the federal transparency efforts have been wrought with delays and missed deadlines. Part of this is the fact that much of this data has been behind a paywall in the past, since it required people to physically copy and mail the information, with the new directives, that income, which I suspect had become something of a profit center for many department since transcripts are for us, will be drying up.

A great many of the essays in this book are from people associated with projects like GovTrack, which take government information (either that freely available, or sometimes behind paywalls which they then digitize), and often do analysis of the data to show connections that may not have been directly obvious. Sites like FollowTheMoney.org, or MAPLight.org, both of which show voting records and campaign contributions, and how they may be related. Both sites do a reasonable job of not editorializing on what they’re presenting.

My favorite technology that I read about was RECAP, which is a Firefox Plugin (I’ve considered porting it to Chrome) which detects when you’re browsing PACER, an online database of all US Federal Court decisions used when researching case law. PACER costs about 8 cents per page, with a max cost of $2.40 for a document. While not an exceptional amount of money, with the number of documents that someone may need to pull can really add up, particularly for a non-profit legal defense firm. Using RECAP, when you request a PACER document, it checks the RECAP database, serving it for free if it exists, and if it doesn’t, if you buy the document, it will be uploaded to RECAP automatically. Even for-profit legal firms can benefit from this, by reducing their research costs (and hopefully passing that on to clients).

This is a really interesting book, but like others of it’s ilk (collections of essays on a similar topic, Beautiful Code being one example), this is not a book meant to be read from cover to cover without breaks as far as I’m concerned. As someone who wants to write a review, this puts me in an awkward position. By the end, I was bored, and not inclined to say much nice about the book. Hell, the only reason the tone of this review is so positive is because I finished reading this book almost two months ago and have had time to reflect on it.

The reason the book got boring by the end was because everyone contributing to it had similar ideas on why openness in government is important, so I kept reading the same points repeated time and again in almost every single essay, and not just in single sentences, but often whole paragraphs felt paraphrased and redundant. To be clear, I don’t know how one would ‘fix’ this issue in a compilation book such as this, but when reading straight through, I know it’s detrimental to my experience.

Still, I think the work these people are doing is interesting and important, and there are plenty of resources I’m now aware of that I wasn’t before, and a lot of great disucssion about the challenges in the data and the way it’s collected that I hadn’t been aware of. It’s absolutely worth a read, but it’s absolutely unnecessary (and I’d say unadvisable) to read from cover to cover.