Open government and conflicts with public trust and privacy: Recent research ideas


Article by John Wihbey:  “Since the Progressive Era, ideas about the benefits of government openness — crystallized by Justice Brandeis’s famous phrase about the disinfectant qualities of “sunlight” — have steadily grown more popular and prevalent. Post-Watergate reforms further embodied these ideas. Now, notions of “open government” and dramatically heightened levels of transparency have taken hold as zero-cost digital dissemination has become a reality. Many have advocated switching the “default” of government institutions so information and data are no longer available just “on demand” but rather are publicized as a matter of course in usable digital form.
As academic researchers point out, we don’t yet have a great deal of long-term, valid data for many of the experiments in this area to weigh civic outcomes and the overall advance of democracy. Anecdotally, though, it seems that more problems — from potholes to corruption — are being surfaced, enabling greater accountability. This “new fuel” of data also creates opportunities for businesses and organizations; and so-called “Big Data” projects frequently rely on large government datasets, as do “news apps.”
But are there other logical limits to open government in the digital age? If so, what are the rationales for these limits? And what are the latest academic insights in this area?
Most open-records laws, including the federal Freedom of Information Act, still provide exceptions that allow public institutions to guard information that might interfere with pending legal proceedings or jeopardize national security. In addition, the internal decision-making and deliberation processes of government agencies as well as documents related to personnel matters are frequently off limits. These exceptions remain largely untouched in the digital age (notwithstanding extralegal actions by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, or confidential sources who disclose things to the press). At a practical level, experts say that the functioning of FOIA laws is still uneven, and some states continue to threaten rollbacks.
Limits of transparency?
A key moment in the rethinking of openness came in 2009, when Harvard University legal scholar Lawrence Lessig published an essay in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” In it, Lessig — a well-known advocate for greater access to information and knowledge of many kinds — warned that transparency in and of itself could lead to diminished trust in government and must be tied to policies that can also rebuild public confidence in democratic institutions.
In recent years, more political groups have begun leveraging open records laws as a kind of tool to go after opponents, a phenomenon that has even touched the public university community, which is typically subject to disclosure laws….

Privacy and openness
If there is a tension between transparency and public trust, there is also an uneasy balance between government accountability and privacy. A 2013 paper in the American Review of Public Administration, “Public Pay Disclosure in State Government: An Ethical Analysis,” examines a standard question of disclosure faced in every state: How much should even low-level public servants be subject to personal scrutiny about their salaries? The researchers, James S. Bowman and Kelly A. Stevens of Florida State University, evaluate issues of transparency based on three competing values: rules (justice or fairness), results (what does the greatest good), and virtue (promoting integrity.)…”

Open Government and Its Constraints


Blog entry by Panthea Lee: “Open government” is everywhere. Search the term and you’ll find OpenGovernment.orgOpenTheGovernment.orgOpen Government InitiativeOpen Gov Hub and the Open Gov Foundation; you’ll find open government initiatives for New York CityBostonKansasVirginiaTennessee and the list goes on; you’ll find dedicated open government plans for the White HouseState DepartmentUSAIDTreasuryJustice DepartmentCommerceEnergy and just about every other major federal agency. Even the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are in on open government.
And that’s just in the United States.
There is Open Government AfricaOpen Government in the EU and Open Government Data. The World Bank has an Open Government Data Toolkit and recently announced a three-year initiative to help developing countries leverage open data. And this week, over 1,000 delegates from over 60 countries are in London for the annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership, which has grown from 8 to 60 member states in just two years….
Many of us have no consensus or clarity on just what exactly “open government” iswhat we hope to achieve from it or how to measure our progress. Too often, our initiatives are designed through the narrow lenses of our own biases and without a concrete understanding of those they are intended for — both those in and out of government.
If we hope to realize the promise of more open governments, let’s be clear about the barriers we face so that we may start to overcome them.
Barrier 1: “Open Gov” is…?
Open government is… not new, for starters….
Barrier 2: Open Gov is Not Inclusive
The central irony of open government is that it’s often not “open” at all….
Barrier 3: Open Gov Lacks Empathy
Open government practitioners love to speak of “the citizen” and “the government.” But who exactly are these people? Too often, we don’t really know. We are builders, makers and creators with insufficient understanding of whom we are building, making and creating for…On the flip side, who do we mean by “the government?” And why, gosh darn it, is it so slow to innovate? Simply put, “the government” is comprised of individual people working in environments that are not conducive to innovation….
For open government to realize its potential, we must overcome these barriers.”

Mozilla Location Service: crowdsourcing data to help devices find your location without GPS


“The Mozilla Location Service is an experimental pilot project to provide geolocation lookups based on publicly observable cell tower and WiFi access point information. Currently in its early stages, it already provides basic service coverage of select locations thanks to our early adopters and contributors.
A world map showing areas with location data. Map data provided by mapbox / OpenStreetMap.
While many commercial services exist in this space, there’s currently no large public service to provide this crucial part of any mobile ecosystem. Mobile phones with a weak GPS signal and laptops without GPS hardware can use this service to quickly identify their approximate location. Even though the underlying data is based on publicly accessible signals, geolocation data is by its very nature personal and privacy sensitive. Mozilla is committed to improving the privacy aspects for all participants of this service offering.
If you want to help us build our service, you can install our dedicated Android MozStumbler and enjoy competing against others on our leaderboard or choose to contribute anonymously. The service is evolving rapidly, so expect to see a more full featured experience soon. For an overview of the current experience, you can head over to the blog of Soledad Penadés, who wrote a far better introduction than we did.
We welcome any ideas or concerns about this project and would love to hear any feedback or experience you might have. Please contact us either on our dedicated mailing list or come talk to us in our IRC room #geo on Mozilla’s IRC server.
For more information please follow the links on our project page.”

When Nudges Fail: Slippery Defaults


New paper by Lauren E. Willis “Inspired by the success of “automatic enrollment” in increasing participation in defined contribution retirement savings plans, policymakers have put similar policy defaults in place in a variety of other contexts, from checking account overdraft coverage to home-mortgage escrows. Internet privacy appears poised to be the next arena. But how broadly applicable are the results obtained in the retirement savings context? Evidence from other contexts indicates two problems with this approach: the defaults put in place by the law are not always sticky, and the people who opt out may be those who would benefit the most from the default. Examining the new default for consumer checking account overdraft coverage reveals that firms can systematically undermine each of the mechanisms that might otherwise operate to make defaults sticky. Comparing the retirement-savings default to the overdraft default, four boundary conditions on the use of defaults as a policy tool are apparent: policy defaults will not be sticky when (1) motivated firms oppose them, (2) these firms have access to the consumer, (3) consumers find the decision environment confusing, and (4) consumer preferences are uncertain. Due to constitutional and institutional constraints, government regulation of the libertarian-paternalism variety is unlikely to be capable of overcoming these bounds. Therefore, policy defaults intended to protect individuals when firms have the motivation and means to move consumers out of the default are unlikely to be effective unless accompanied by substantive regulation. Moreover, the same is likely to be true of “nudges” more generally, when motivated firms oppose them.”

Scientific Humanities


New course by Bruno Latour: “Scientific humanities” means the extension of interpretative skills to the discoveries made by science and to technical innovations. The course will equip future citizens with the means to be at ease with many issues that straddle the distinctions between science, morality, politics and society.
The course provides concepts and methods to :

  • learn the basics of the field called “science and technology studies”, a vast corpus of literature developed over the last forty years to give a realistic description of knowledge production
  • handle the flood of different opinions about contentious issues and order the various positions by using the tools now available through digital media
  • comment on those different pieces of news in a more articulated way through a specifically designed blog.

Course Format : the course is organized in 8 sequences It displays multimedia contents (images, video, original documents)
Bruno Latour was trained as a philosopher and an anthropologist. From 1982 to 2006, he has been professor at the CSI (Ecole des mines) in Paris. He is now professor at Sciences Po where he created the medialab in 2009. He became famous for his social studies of science and technology. He developed with others a widely known theory called “Actor Network Theory”.
http://www.bruno-latour.fr/

The GovLab Academy: A Community and Platform for Learning and Teaching Governance Innovations


Press Release: “Today the Governance Lab (The GovLab) launches The GovLab Academy at the Open Government Partnership Annual Meeting in London.
Available at www.thegovlabacademy.org, the Academy is a free online community for those wanting to teach and learn how to solve public problems and improve lives using innovations in governance. A partnership between The GovLab  at New York University and MIT Media Lab’s Online Learning Initiative, the site launching today offers curated videos, podcasts, readings and activities designed to enable the purpose driven learner to deepen his or her practical knowledge at her own pace.
The GovLab Academy is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “The GovLab Academy addresses a growing need among policy makers at all levels – city, federal and global – to leverage advances in technology to govern differently,” says Carol Coletta, Vice President of Community and National Initiatives at the Knight Foundation.  “By connecting the latest technological innovations to a community of willing mentors, the Academy has the potential to catalyze more experimentation in a sector that badly needs it.”
Initial topics include using data to improve policymaking and cover the role of big data, urban analytics, smart disclosure and open data in governance. A second track focuses on online engagement and includes practical strategies for using crowdsourcing to solicit ideas, organize distributed work and gather data.  The site features both curated content drawn from a variety of sources and original interviews with innovators from government, civil society, the tech industry, the arts and academia talking about their work around the world implementing innovations in practice, what worked and what didn’t, to improve real people’s lives.
Beth Noveck, Founder and Director of The GovLab, describes its mission: “The Academy is an experiment in peer production where every teacher is a learner and every learner a teacher. Consistent with The GovLab’s commitment to measuring what works, we want to measure our success by the people contributing as well as consuming content. We invite everyone with ideas, stories, insights and practical wisdom to contribute to what we hope will be a thriving and diverse community for social change”.”

New U.S. Open Government National Action Plan


The White House Fact Sheet: “In September 2011, President Obama joined the leaders of seven other nations in announcing the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a global effort to encourage transparent, effective, and accountable governance.
Two years later, OGP has grown to 60 countries that have made more than 1000 commitments to improve the governance of more than two billion people around the globe.  OGP is now a global community of government reformers, civil society leaders, and business innovators working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms and advance good governance…
Today at the OGP summit in London, the United States announced a new U.S. Open Government National Action Plan that includes six ambitious new commitments that will advance these efforts even further.  Those commitments include expanding open data, modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), increasing fiscal transparency, increasing corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement and empowerment, and more effectively managing public resources.
Expand Open Data:  Open Data fuels innovation that grows the economy and advances government transparency and accountability.  Government data has been used by journalists to uncover variations in hospital billings, by citizens to learn more about the social services provided by charities in their communities, and by entrepreneurs building new software tools to help farmers plan and manage their crops.  Building upon the successful implementation of open data commitments in the first U.S. National Action Plan, the new Plan will include commitments to make government data more accessible and useful for the public, such as reforming how Federal agencies manage government data as a strategic asset, launching a new version of Data.gov, and expanding agriculture and nutrition data to help farmers and communities.
Modernize the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):  The FOIA encourages accountability through transparency and represents a profound national commitment to open government principles.  Improving FOIA administration is one of the most effective ways to make the U.S. Government more open and accountable.  Today, the United States announced a series of commitments to further modernize FOIA processes, including launching a consolidated online FOIA service to improve customers’ experience and making training resources available to FOIA professionals and other Federal employees.
Increase Fiscal Transparency:   The Administration will further increase the transparency of where Federal tax dollars are spent by making federal spending data more easily available on USASpending.gov; facilitating the publication of currently unavailable procurement contract information; and enabling Americans to more easily identify who is receiving tax dollars, where those entities or individuals are located, and how much they receive.
Increase Corporate Transparency:  Preventing criminal organizations from concealing the true ownership and control of businesses they operate is a critical element in safeguarding U.S. and international financial markets, addressing tax avoidance, and combatting corruption in the United States and abroad.  Today we committed to take further steps to enhance transparency of legal entities formed in the United States.
Advance Citizen Engagement and Empowerment:  OGP was founded on the principle that an active and robust civil society is critical to open and accountable governance.  In the next year, the Administration will intensify its efforts to roll back and prevent new restrictions on civil society around the world in partnership with other governments, multilateral institutions, the philanthropy community, the private sector, and civil society.  This effort will focus on improving the legal and regulatory framework for civil society, promoting best practices for government-civil society collaboration, and conceiving of new and innovative ways to support civil society globally.
More Effectively Manage Public Resources:   Two years ago, the Administration committed to ensuring that American taxpayers receive every dollar due for the extraction of the nation’s natural resources by committing to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).  We continue to work toward achieving full EITI compliance in 2016.  Additionally, the U.S. Government will disclose revenues on geothermal and renewable energy and discuss future disclosure of timber revenues.
For more information on OGP, please visit www.opengovpartnership.org or follow @opengovpart on Twitter.”
See also White House Plans a Single FOIA Portal Across Government

Open Data Barometer


Press Release by the Open Data Research Network: “New research by World Wide Web Foundation and Open Data Institute shows that 55% of countries surveyed have open data initiatives in place, yet less than 10% of key government datasets across the world are truly open to the public…the Open Data Barometer. This 77-country study, which considers the interlinked areas of policy, implementation and impact, ranks the UK at number one. The USA, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway (tied) make up the rest of the top five. Kenya is ranked as the most advanced developing country, outperforming richer countries such as Ireland, Italy and Belgium in global comparisons.

The Barometer reveals that:

  • 55% of countries surveyed have formal open data policies in place.

  • Valuable but potentially controversial datasets – such as company registers and land registers – are among the least likely to be openly released. It is unclear whether this stems from reluctance to drop lucrative access charges, or from desire to keep a lid on politically sensitive information, or both. However, the net effect is to severely limit the accountability benefits of open data.

  • When they are released, government datasets are often issued in inaccessible formats. Across the nations surveyed, fewer that than 1 in 10 key datasets that could be used to hold governments to account, stimulate enterprise, and promote better social policy, are available and truly open for re-use.

The research also makes the case that:

  • Efforts should be made to empower civil society, entrepreneurs and members of the public to use government data made available, rather than simply publishing data online.

  • Business activity and innovation can be boosted by strong open data policies.  In Denmark, for example, free of charge access to address data has had a significant economic impact. In 2010, an evaluation recorded an estimated financial benefit to society of EUR 62 million against costs of EUR 2million.”

Seizing the data opportunity: UK data capability strategy


New UK Policy Paper by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills: “In the information economy, the ability to handle and analyse data is essential for the UK’s competitive advantage and business transformation. The volume, velocity and variety of data being created and analysed globally is rising every day, and using data intelligently has the potential to transform public sector organisations, drive research and development, and enable market-changing products and services. The social and economic potential is significant, and the UK is well placed to compete in the global market for data analytics. Through this strategy, the government aims to place the UK at the forefront of this process by building our capability to exploit data for the benefit of citizens, business, and academia. This is our action plan for making the UK a data success story.

Working in partnership with business and academia, the government has developed a shared vision for the UK’s data capability, with the aim of making the UK a worldleader in extracting insight and value from data for the benefit of citizens and consumers, business and academia, the public and the private sectors. The Information Economy Council and the E-infrastructure Leadership Council will oversee delivery of the actions in this strategy, and continue to develop additional
plans to support this vision.
Data capability: This strategy focuses on three overarching aspects to data capability. The first is human capital – a skilled workforce, and data-confident citizens. The second covers the tools and infrastructure which are available to store and analyse data. The third is data itself as an enabler – data capability is underpinned by the ability of consumers, businesses and academia to access and share data appropriately…”

 

Crowdsourcing the sounds of cities’ quiet spots


Springwise: “Finding a place in the city to collect your thoughts and enjoy some quietude is a rare thing. While startups such as Breather are set to open up private spaces for work and relaxation in several US cities, a new project called Stereopublic is hoping to map the ones already there, recruiting citizens to collect the sounds of those spaces.
Participants can download the free iOS app created by design studio Freerange Future, which enables them to become an ‘earwitness’. When they discover a tranquil spot in their city, they can use their GPS co-ordinates to record its exact location on the Stereopublic map, as well as record a 30-second sound clip and take a photo to give others a better idea of what it’s like. The team then works with sound experts to create quiet tours of each participating city, which currently includes Adelaide, London, LA, New York City, Singapore and 26 other global cities. The video below offers some more information about the project: