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Open Government on the Internet

Friday’s “Open Government on the Internet” conference at the LBJ Library opened with Bill Bradley, who discussed his (and President Obama’s) profound interest inmaking government more accessible. The conference explored various aspects of government openness and transparency, but at the core of the conversation is an intention – affirmed by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra – to put all data online and to open up government databases, making as much data as possible accessible via clear and usable application programming interfaces. Bradly talked about data and information as raw material for sculpting democratic outcomes. For example, he supports a searchable Federal budget with links from each budget item to the appropriations bill, the authorization bill, information about the committee that passed the bill, who testified and who they represented. This would be a series of connections that would let you see who did what to affect spending at a granular level.

Bradley said we have the opportunity to leverage the ideas of enormously talented people throughout the U.S. via crowdsourcing or “ideastorming.” Truly open government ios not just about providing information from government sources to the people, but also about flowing ideas back from people to the government.

Most people, he said, are not extremely ideological. Their political views may be more complex, not well summarized by categories like “right” or “left,” “Republican” or “Democrat.” He imagined individuals having personal political pages that include more detail about their views, and from the contents of these pages, you could build constituencies around specific issues (the kinds of “adhocracies” that I envisioned in 1997, when I wrote “Nodal Politics” as one chapter of a never-published book about the Internet’s potential as a platform for democracy and political activism).

Following Bradley, there was a keynote by Vivek Kundra, the new Federal CIO he directs Federal technology policy and strategy. The Federal Government has a wealth of information, he says, that taxpayers paid for and have a right to access and use. Obama issued memoranda on transparency and open government as a first move after he took office – it was his highest priority. We have the Freedom of Information Act that LBJ signed when he was president, and we should assume that transparency and accessibility of information is the default, and not an exception that requires a special request.

Note the Human Genome Project, which put the genome data in the public domain. This resulted in a global explosion of innovation in treatment development, over 500 new drugs. Also consider the democratization of satellite information and its impact on navigation and mapping.

By opening up and making data available across disciplines, we can tap into the ingenuity of the people. The true value of technology and data lies at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Crowdsourcing is powerful – the crowd might see patterns the public section lacks the resources or attention to spot. Looking at innovation at a grassroots level, and lower cost of technologies.

Kundra is looking at agencies that have led the way, and new ways to leverage networks. It’s not enough to merely “webify” exiswting institutions. We should fundamentally change processes. There are 24,000 web sites within Federal government, but we need to think about moving government and services where the people are, systems like Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, Ebay, etc. where there’s high adoption. How do we move our applications where the people are, and fit them to context? We need to provide services in contextgs people are most comfortable with.

Wayne Caswell asked about broadband objectives. Kundra says the intention is to aggressively ensure that we extend broadband access into rural and underserved communities. Services should exist across the entire spectrum, and solutions should work everywhere.

Dennis Mick asked about the possibility of intrusive surveillance. There are robust privacy committees within the CIO council and within the White House. The idea is to bake privacy protection into technologies as they’re developed. They’re working closely with the General Services Administration to negotiate model agreements and ensure privacy protection.

Sharron Rush asked about accessibility. The Feds have rules about accessibility of web sites, yet not all the Fed sites meet accessibility standards (e.g. recovery.org). Kundra says part of the problem is in failing to address accessibility up front and bake it into the procurement process and the architecture of solutions. This will be corrected to make sure no one is disenfranchised.

Gary Chapman, Director of the LBJ School’s 21st Century Project and an organizer of the event, spoke next, saying that the discourse and vocabulary of enterprise computing is being challenged by a new discourse and thinking about consumer technology. What is the bridge between enterprise computing and the new consumer model that is encroaching on institutions?

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