Creating Technology for Social Change

Opening Open Government at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference

We’re here at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media conference here at the MIT Media Lab, where the theme is Insiders/Outsiders. Across the next two days, we’re going to be looking at this theme of institutions and innovators across the areas of government, media, and disaster response. Across the event, speakers will be asking if it’s better to look for change inside institutions or try to transform things from the outside.

This session, Opening Open Government, discusses the emerging “open government” field which seems to have the potential to help governments around the world become more transparent and responsive. But to make that happen, we must reach beyond aspirational thinking and design projects and practices that meet people where they are. With a group of leaders from inside and outside government, we’ll discuss how we can make open government concepts more relevant and useful to our communities. Kate Balug will be curating/moderating this session, and leading the panelists through a broad discussion on open government.

This post was liveblogged by Stephen Suen, Erhardt Graeff, and Chris Peterson. Willow Brugh created the brilliant prezi of the talk.


Kate Balug: What excites you the most about the concept of open government today?

Christine Gaspar: “We [at the Center for Urban Pedagogy] collaborate with community organizations that are struggling with certain processes… that are really confusing. We break down and make accessible those issues.” The Center places a particular emphasis on underrepresented communities and wrestles with the social justice issues that are contributing to the information gap.

Mark Headd: “I used to be an outsider.” As someone who worked in government in the past, he recognizes the value of open data and open government. He left briefly to work in the tech industry, but was eventually drawn back into the public sector. “I’m an insider now… on the inside, I get to see the change that happens when you talk to government employees about the importance of government data and being open. It’s a very different way of thinking—I’m not a solution developer anymore, I’m a data steward. That’s a really different way of thinking for government employees. Government is not set up to make good technological decisions. It’s much easier for governments to bet on data. When we build out the apparatus and infrastructure, it also becomes a harder argument not to share things that aren’t purely about transparency.”

Hilary Hoeber: “I am a design thinker, not a designer, with a big D. The spectrum of things we’re seeing outside in the world… is just so broad and huge. I’m excited to start seeing the human side of all the open gov conversations. The data and technology is really important, but today I wanted to bring the humans back into the system. We’re seeing a really great shift from transactions to relationships. How can businesses have a great relationship with the city of Santa Cruz, rather than filling out a form?”

Seth Wainer: “At the macro level, open government is really about the information economy and adding value by opening all kinds of data sets. At the local level, however, it’s about efficiency and community. Just about every city in America can benefit from these things… I would propose as a thesis that in a post-Hurricane Sandy world, we are really aware of this: solving problems on the fly.”

Kate Balug: “You guys touched upon many of the questions I had…” The last point you made about efficiency is really good. Streamlining results in straight and to the point comes in conflict with the messiness of the model you suggest. How do we deal with this?

Seth Wainer: “Efficiency is fundamentally solving the most problems with the least amount of money. If open government can help us solve problems in a more lean way [e.g. potholes, garbage collection], we can clean up our city in a better way.”

Christine Gaspar: “The use of the word citizen—it’s a tough word. In a lot of the communities we’re working in, there are people who are undocumented. Just by using that word, we’re saying that certain people can’t participate.”

Mark Headd: “I don’t think there’s necessarily a relationship between decreased efficiency and open data.” We pushed for the release of data from the City of Philadelphia. I felt like it elevated the conversation about property ownership in the city. We wouldn’t have had anywhere near the discussion we had without the data.

Hilary Hoeber: Efficiency, there’s always a time and place for it, but it’s not always what we are looking for. Sometime it’s about building trust and relationships… we were working with the Singaporean government, they had a very efficient expat visa process, but didn’t do a good job of building an emotional attachment.”

Seth Wainer: “In the City of Newark, we are trying to do what we can with the resources we have. In many cases, citizens are just asking for help. From an efficiency standpoint, how can we help those people and people in a similar boat? There’s a lot of cities across America that are struggling with a similar scenario… open government opens up the dialogue.”

Kate Balug: “Maybe we should take a step back and ask what is the role of each citizen, or perhaps stakeholder, in this process, where they sit, and how they can help.”

Seth Wainer: “Government may not be the best at providing this mobile app, but it can be the best at providing the data for it.”

Mark Headd

Mark Headd: “I think you’re seeing a lot of governments waking up to the fact that there are a lot of efficiency gains to be made by opening data and leveraging outside developers. But I think there’s a difference between open data and being an open government. I think they’re related, but they kind of go together. It’s about agenda setting. There’s a necessary role that outsiders must play — sometimes collaborators, sometimes agitators, sometimes a pain in the ass. Open government and open data are related, but we have to talk inclusively about that term.”

Christine Gaspar: I think there is an interesting question about what government is. There are some city agencies that ask us about our tools and how they can work in communities. Just to be clear, when I say tool, I mean this technology we call “paper.” There are other city agencies that find CUP to be a pain in the ass. I would love to hear about how other people on the panel navigate that.

Kate Balug: “So how do you take those complaints into account and incorporate them into the process?”

Seth Wainer: “It’s important to remember we’re all probably going to be doing this dance for a while. One of the challenges with the leadership model is that the leadership is going to change. What worked in one go around the merry-go-round is hopefully going to stay for the next merry-go-round, but…”

Mark Headd: “Taking that directive to the vast bureaucracy and implementing it is the work of open government and open data. There’s legitimate push back from the bureaucrats — how is this going to help me achieve my objectives? That’s how we really make it work: taking these directives from on high to the bureaucracy and really making it work.”

Kate Balug: Have you noticed anything in your local governments growing around these relationships? Have things gotten better?

Hilary Hoeber: “Right now we’re talking as if you’re either in or you’re out. If you kind of shift it — you’re a contributor, you’re a follower, you’re a voyeur, based on your passions — it’s a really nice mix now.”

Audience Question: “I think the theme of the gathering Insiders/Outsiders hits a issue that affects us in more than just government. How do we do governance over our content in, say, Facebook? How do we walk different lines that let us separate those two items and activities? How do we avoid issues like cronyism? We’re seeing porous membranes between inside organizations and outside organizations. How do you deal with that?”

Mark Headd: “Talking about the tax system: it’s a real pain. Most of the reason it’s a pain is because it’s a real problem. When we think of these government processes that govern the relationships between insiders and outsiders, we need to think about what makes them so complicated and what tradeoffs we’re willing to make to simplify them. If we streamline and make more efficient these processes, why are they as complex/painful as they are and what are we willing to give up to fix them?”

Seth Wainer: “I was curious if anyone else in the room feels like things have gotten better: that it’s more porous, you’re able to work on project that weren’t able to ten years ago…”

Nigel Jacob

Nigel Jacobs at New Urban Mechanics answers Seth from the audience: “We’re seeing the willingness of forming partnerships across organizational boundaries—it’s kind of like a hockey puck. People who would have been too proud otherwise are increasingly willing to come to the table and collaborate with government.”

Ellen Miller, director of the Sunlight Foundation, observes from the audience that we’ve seen a mindset revolution but not a data revolution that has allowed for the broad proliferation of tools. What are the two biggest barriers to inspiring that kind of change?

Seth Wainer: “I think money is still a big one. What I’m finding is that the things people want to fund are not necessarily the things our city needs. The city doesn’t need a lot of sexy things. We need innovative ways to keep a city clean, i.e. garbage collection.”

Mark Headd: “My two are technology… and culture.” We have an agency in the Philly government that maintains most of the data people want, which is information on landlords to look for slum landlords in our city. This agency releases data on CD with a terms of service that says you can’t share the data with others who have not agreed to the terms, and can’t make it searchable by owner. Mark asked them where did these terms come from because they were unlike any other agency’s. And they said they didn’t know. It was just legacy (just like the technology).

Christine Gaspar: “To me, open gov is essentially a government where people can understand the policies that affect their community in an accessible way… it’s driven by technology and what we can do rather than what people need. We can develop totally different interfaces if we shift those priorities.”

Hilary Hoeber

Hilary Hoeber: “You need a balanced understanding of the wants and needs of everyone. You also need to understand the incentives that underlie a system. There are the people here who are engaged, there are the people who would like to be more engaged but aren’t, and there are the people who don’t care at all. You have to figure out how to move people up the chain so that they become more active.”

Kate Balug: Who is most engaged in the process? If you had $5 million, who would you give it to, to promote better engagement from?

Seth Wainer: “There’s a lot of amazing groups that I’ve been meeting over the past few months.”

Mark Headd: “Obviously, the civic hacking community is very engaged and know what data is available and how to get it.” However, Mark argues there are lot of folks who are data consumers: people that want to know about schools, about property owners in their neighborhood, about how libraries are being funded because the staff are being cut. These folks are as big or bigger a constituency of open data as civic hackers.

Hilary Hoeber: “I don’t know, to be honest. There’s a whole neighborhood war going on, with Next Door vs Neighborland and who’s going to win. I don’t think I have a good answer for this one.”

Christine Gaspar: “The New York Times is doing a great job with mapping (e.g. stop and frisk) to provoke conversation within the community. That’s another interesting group that’s bringing this change: journalists. Pratt is setting up a center that’s a mapping and data center providing access to community organizations that want to use this data. Additionally, they are helping them understand the data in context and apply it appropriately.

Kate Balug: You brought up accountability. What are the best measures that we have available? What can governments and community groups do to improve accountability?

Seth Wainer

Seth Wainer: “I think a good measure is how many uncomfortable data sets a government opens up. For example, abandoned properties. The uncomfortable level of some of these more challenging community problems… I would like to see an uncomfortable rating on some of these data sets.”

Mark Headd: “There’s an obvious political resonance from being involved with these sorts of issues. Having that in place, being able to say ‘you’ve been committed to this; this is what you agreed to do, and now we need to make good on that.’ I see this as one of the pieces of infrastructure. It’s really tempting to look at the number of open data sets, and it feels good. Back to uncomfortable data, Philadelphia is one of the only states that releases a data set on complaints against police officers.”

Audience Question: I am wondering what you think the horizon for open government is. Which state is closest to achieving open government? Is our horizon about getting perspectives not coming from the government? Or is our horizon about getting it all from the government? Or is there a third space?

Seth Wainer: “What is the utopia of open government? If you have high expectations, you get to a point where government is more responsive. If we keep setting our expectations higher and higher on these things — ‘of course I should be able to do that’ — the utopia is that we will just come to expect these things. Our expectations on our officials is the major driving force is making that a reality.”

Hilary Hoeber: Can I build on that? Citizen’s role versus government’s role is an interesting concept. What can government ask in return for new and improved services, or the changes we are expecting? In the entire system with all the stakeholders, what is the role of the citizen? And the return on investment in citizenry?

Mark Headd: “Like the old adage goes: it’ll always be a process. It’ll be that culture change I was talking about before; time will take care of that. We’ll be in a better place than we are now.”

Christine Gaspar: I’m interested in the development of the third party space around that. Does it become harder to find a useful dataset? What is the third party infrastructure that develops alongside open data to keep interpreting it?

Kate Balug: “Before we turn back to the audience, I just wanted to ask specifically the lead question of this panel: how do we connect residents better to OpenGov projects?”

Seth Wainer: “You really have to make those one-on-one connections and know what they are really interested in. Ultimately, the technology is fantastic but it’s the face-to-face interactions that are the most important.”

Hilary Hoeber: “Putting on my design thinking cap….” It’s about asking residents what will make them care. And then it’s about taking it from there.

Mark Headd: “Most people will view data as a finished app. They’re not going to look at the raw data or the API. Getting people to understand the connection between those things is what will make the argument for open data more compelling.”

Christina Gaspar

Christine Gaspar: If we are going to get to a truly open place, we can’t just be digital. Face to face is part of that. Using phones that aren’t smart phones, like with Vojo. We use paper — it’s not some weird steampunk thing. Maybe it can start digital but it finds its way into the world in other ways.

Kate Balug: “So if we were going to start making our manifesto, we know that open gov is open data, but what else have you got?”

Christine Gaspar: “Can I just throw one in? Available is not equal to accessible.”

Mark Headd: Get it in writing. A law, a process, a plan, whatever.

Audience question: “What is the perception of the responsibility to provide equal access and representation? Everything you create comes with design decisions that will determine who can participate. How do you deal with those?”

Seth Wainer: “I got my dad an iPad and he asked if he could have MSN on it. He thought that “MSN” was the Internet because he uses Explorer to access the web. So he’s attached to certain ideas of platforms. Sometimes the people who wouldn’t engage on one platform, you want to get them to engage and use other platforms, but it’s really hard. Multiple platforms are really important, especially in the developing world. Being able to text money—that’s revolutionary outside the U.S.”

Mark Headd: This is really important for the city of Philadelphia, where less than 50% have access to the internet that we would consider adequate. Mark thinks a lot of folks sit around and expect that technology will solve it’s own problem here. “I’m embarrassed I don’t have a better answer for you. We are overdue on fixing this.”

Christine Gaspar: “One thing I would add: multiple language access. With digital, it’s so much easier to do that, and has so much potential, but it hasn’t really been explored.”

Audience suggestion: “Open data is not just about keeping governments accountable, but also private entities accountable. ProPublica released a database of government data on private nursing homes. Keeping all sorts of institutions and organizations in check — that should be part of the role of government too.”

Sean Wainer: “During Hurricane Sandy, people didn’t know what gas stations were open, etc. This is an example where the private sector was way ahead of the private sector, e.g. with GasBuddy. I would have loved if FEMA had a button to get data on schools. Some of these tools, like GasBuddy, are way ahead of us. States have to be on their game as to how to gather this kind of information.”

Latoya Peterson: “Hi, I’m editor of Racialicious. Some of my research looks at how low-income communities might interact with open data in ways that you might not expect. My question for the panel is what do you know or understand about the information access gaps in your community? In Washington, DC, more and more people are relying on public libraries and public access terminals to fill out government forms, which suffer from overcrowding. What kind of information do you need to bridge those gaps?”

Mark Headd: The City of Philadelphia runs a number of KEYSPOTs that offer internet access, where people come to get information about benefits and other issues. We try to raise awareness around where those places are. But we don’t have a good solution to this problem.

Seth Wainer: “With our city, I assume that everyone’s on the same playing field. I guess I’m just naive about the problem.”

Christine Gaspar: “Our whole organization exists to capture that. Going back to the issue of incentives for participation, people will have a really specific thing that’s impacting their lives, so our projects tend to be [specific] that way.”

Seth Wainer: “I think it is the role of government to provide good infrastructure like roads that function so that people can bring their goods to market.” High-speed internet is now one. NYC is doing some good work thinking about reusing telephone booths to make them hotspots. There needs to be more work on this.

Chris Peterson: I wanted to come back to the issue of nomenclatures. Christine mentioned that she doesn’t like to use the word “citizen” because it excludes the undocumented, and we’ve certainly seen a great deal of interest in this debate to drop the I-word in the immigration debate. In this panel I’ve heard variously citizens, constituents, residents, and so forth. Could you talk a little bit more about the words you find yourselves and how that informs who you imagine to play a role in your programs and processes? .

Christine Gaspar: “I started it, so I’ll talk about it.” One group we work with is Community Voices Heard, which works with community housing developments so we’ll talk about housing residents.

Audience question: “We haven’t really talked about media or journalism — how can we act as a bridge between the citizens, stakeholders, end users and the government? I’d love to hear some of your ideas on that.”

Mark Headd: “As I said before, most people are going to look at this data from government through some finished interface. It could be journalism or a television broadcast.”

Seth Wainer: “People seem to know what a codeathon is, or a hackathon. Our local paper is doing good work in explaining the situation.”

Christine Gaspar: “The Times does interesting work, but not everyone may be able to produce that kind of work… I worry so much about that not being part of the conversation because it’s so critical.”