Yesterday, in the Turning Data into Narrative session, panelists discussed how data can generate or support narratives. Many of the data narratives discussed drew explicitly or implicitly on government-derived datasets, with Dan O’Neil of Smart Chicago suggesting journalists should spend less time on FOIA requests and more time exploring government data through the hidden web, memorably showing the audience the ftp index of Dallas PD’s crime reports.
Today, we focus directly on ideas of transparency and e-government, exploring the successes and failures of local, state, and national efforts. The panel is moderated by Susan Crawford of the Harvard Law School and Kennedy School, co-director of the Berkman Center and contributor to Wired and Bloomberg View. Panelists include Mike Norman, founder of Wefunder.com, a site that supports microinvestments in startups; Mark Headd of Code for America, a nonprofit that supports greater public participation in government via web technologies; and
Chris Vein, previously San Francisco’s first-ever CIO and presently deputy United States chief technology officer for government innovation.
Susan describes government itself as an incumbent worried about its future. Presently, there is a deep conversation about how data can help journalism and, in turn, help government. Government innovators are leaving their dusty offices to find colleagues in other countries. Within this context, technology has a role to play. However, at the same time, government is undergoing an existential crisis. How can it enrich its relationship with its population? Enable autonomy? Build trust?
So far, the open government movement has generated a lot of sparks and bright shiny objects, but policy results are unclear. It’s not clear that the services being provided are addressing deep structural needs. It’s not clear that the open government movement is addressing fundamental problems. Nonetheless, this is a time of tremendously exciting change.
This panel seeks to explore, with a somewhat skeptical eye, the open government movement and begin to connect this with journalism so that journalism can better function as the fourth estate.
Mark Headd (Code for America)
Mark introduces Code for America as “a Peace Corps for geeks” that takes talented designers and embeds them throughout the US. The goal is to show cities what is possible, to tap into the “civic surplus“.
In Philadelphia, the only city Code for America has been in twice, Code for America hosted a small series of hackathons. These culminated in Open Data Philly, a site that is neither owned nor operated by the government. Rather, it serves as a repository for open data for all of Philadelphia, hosting open data not just for the city but also for higher education, et al, and can be used by activists and others.
Philadelphia as a city is now so focused on returning data to citizens for their own personal use that they have created a Chief Data Officer position. Despite this commitment on the part of the city, Mark contends that many of the applications that have come out of the Philadelphia projects, such as the Open Data Race, need some form of commercial traction in order to exist beyond a single hackathon.
Finally, Mark points out that open data as a default system has yet to be truly tested. What happens when the data says something city officials don’t want to say?
Mike Norman (Wefunder)
Mike, named by Susan as “one of our leading millennials,” describes Wefunder as a crowd-investing platform for startups, made possible by new legislation in the JOBS Act. Wefunder is driven by the idea that investing in startups should be for everyone—something that wasn’t possible before the JOBS Act.
He outlines four challenges facing Gov 2.0 startups:
- complex sales process
- limited access to capital
- typical entrepreneur needs business skills
- difficult to involve interested stakeholders
Mike contends that crowdfunding will open up a new “ocean” of capital for Gov 2.0 apps. Wefunder helped craft some of the legislation of the JOBS Act. Prior to the act, signed into law on April 5, 2012, an individual needed to have a whopping $1 million in assets or $200,000/year in income in order to invest in a startup—effectively ruling out your standard everyday individual. Now anyone who is willing to commit $2000/year can take part in the startups listed at Wefunder.
But do people really want to invest in early-stage startups? Yes, Mike argues. Wefunder got a lot of traction early on, even without advertising on lists, etc., simply due to enthusiastic word of mouth. The numbers bear him out: With only 5500 investors who have made pledges, they have already collected roughly $15 million.”We’ve hit an inflection point in the way people like to solve problems.”
People are attracted to crowdfunding designs like
et al. Funding for crowd-sourced projects alone hit $837 million last year. With Wefunder, individuals wouldn’t be investing in a single short-term project, but in a longer-term endeavor. The benefits and relationships will consequently be significantly different.
Gov 2.0 startups will have access to investors who really care about social and civic issues. And the support from these investors will be critical—because these individuals won’t just provide funding, they’ll also serve as evangelicals for the project. Eventually, more mainstream investors will move into this space, bringing with them their skills and resources and transforming the space further.
Chris sees his role in Washington as examining what’s working and what isn’t—from the local level of government to the national—and then extracting the secret sauce of success and applying it on a larger scale. He suggests that while open government is necessary, it is open innovation, established on the three pillars of transparency, participation, and collaboration, that is crucial to solving government problems. We need to open ourselves up to ideas founded on these three pillars in order to create the next generation of government.
The federal government hosts data.gov, which is a platform designed not only to make data accessible, but also to create a community— a space for people to explore real data and work on solving problems together. In a similar vein, they will soon be launching cities.data.gov, which will allow cities to present their data in a community/participatory fashion. Further, Chris notes that the government is working internationally to ramp up the open data movement and help build a global open data ecosystem.
Overall, Chris sees the government’s goal as creating a platform that provides assistance and resources; tech-savvy entrepreneurs will then function as the critical agents of change. Within this context, the government should act like a “lean startup” to let their customers—their citizens (he equates the two)—use their products and services.
Susan asks what surprises the panelists right now.
Mark elaborates two surprises: 1. The broad nature of support for open data in the government and the number of people who understand why it matters at a visceral level; and 2. The extreme difficulty of creating openness in government.”Change within government is hard; governments weren’t set up to facilitate quick pivots”
Next, Mike describes his surprise at the speed with which the JOBS Act moved through Congress. Further, he continues to find himself surprised by how few people know that they aren’t—or weren’t—allowed to invest in startups prior to the JOBS Act.
Finally, Chris describes himself as often getting caught up in policy wonkishness and as result being surprised by how much business can be created around open data and open government. He mentions Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, who is creating an environment for companies to participate in the open data movement. This has facilitated companies like Aetna and Walgreens to move toward an open data model.
Moving on, Susan articulates the deep concern around the world that the open government movement—or the big datasets that all too often serve as the main products of it—are just a smokescreen that serves to befuddle citizens.
In response, Mike acknowledges the validity of this concern, arguing that big datasets need to be transformed to become more broadly accessible. Once the data has broad accessibility, it will have transformative power.
Chris agrees that open government isn’t just about open data. He points to the fact that 55 countries around the world have agreed to an open government project that extends far beyond simply providing open data. He sees open government as supporting fundamental change in the delivery of products and services and public participation.
Mark echoes this. Yes, open data serves to invite citizens in, but open government is much, much more. He offers New York City as an example, describing it as “putting its data where its mouth is.” The city has established an open data policy with the force of law behind it and its policies crowd-crafted.
Susan asks, within the context of the broader data-driven journalism discussed at the conference, what should government’s relationship be with journalism? “Is part of the function of government to ensure that there is public accountability?”
Chris suggests the government should provide tools to help journalists do their jobs better. The question is, how do we create the tools to allow journalists to take advantage of what governments are opening up?
Mark contends that an incredible power exists in tools that allow individuals to consume data. And journalists need to be data consumers today. We’re seeing the rise of the “journalist hacker,” with journalists now participating in app developer circles.
Susan asks the panelists to fill in the blank: “You may love public service, but you can’t get to be a public servant without___.”
In response, Mike suggests that knowing people is critical. Chris agrees, saying governments at many levels have lost touch with the people they serve. Mark also highlights the importance of people, describing one of the goals of Code for America as getting people involved in government.
Q: Story Bellows: Innovation seems to be happening at the fringe of government. What kinds of data could be released to speed up the engine of change?
Mark identifies transit data as having triggered the creation of a variety of robust data applications. He further suggests that governments should serve as stewards of data—empowering entrepreneurs—not as developers themselves.
Mike asks us to consider which direct interactions with the government cause people to feel pain, such as transit and transportation, potholes, etc. These are the areas where data could be usefully explored.
Chris requests clarification of Story’s use of “fringe” in this context. Story explains, suggesting that innovation isn’t yet central to things like the budget, law-making, etc. In response, Chris describes the presidential fellows initiative, focused on tackling the procurement problem. This initiative unites government bureaucrats with entrepreneurs, etc. in short, 60-90 days increments.
Q: Caitria O’Neill, CEO of the Knight News Challenge Winner Recovers.org, describes battling with the inflexibility of local governments with rigid budges and a dearth of local-level tools. How can we encourage innovation at these levels?
Mark suggests that it’s important for us to find a way to reward innovation within state and local budget processes. If we can, we will see changes filter through to the procurement process. At the moment there is no incentive to innovate—perhaps even a disincentive.
Mike discusses social impact bonds, which he sees as potentially offering solutions.
Finally, Chris maintains that success breeds success. Various states and cities have established Chief Innovation Officers. By working with these individuals to solve problems—and then showcasing the results—the value of such processes will be demonstrated to other mayors, governors, legislators, etc.
Q: What about accountability? What can be done within government to release data that is meaningful in the context of accountability?
Chris contends that historically, the government had built up a network or system that wasn’t focused on transparency, but, rather, on security, et al. Now we’re calling this paradigm into question. At the moment, the focus in the government is on creating a new paradigm, not fixing the data that’s already out there.
Mark brings up an area of policy that has been neglected in the context of open data: financial reporting in political campaigns. This is one of the few areas where it remains acceptable to submit data on paper, to publish pdf images that are difficult to transform into usable data. Eventually, it is going to become impossible to avoid this area; campaign finance data needs the same treatment as other areas.
Q: Catherine D’Ignazio draws on an example of her grandmother’s experience in a cardiology appointment to suggest that private industry often obstructs important data transparency. What is the role of government here?
Chris articulates the idea of smart disclosure—”open data is great, but helping consumers make better informed decisions with their income is something we should really be caring about.” We need to ask ourselves how we can be smarter in the ways we disclose information.
The government is presently experimenting with the private sector to encourage the voluntary release of data. They started with the VA where veterans can download their data and use it however they want. He suggests that showing companies that this approach can be valuable to them will persuade them to adopt similar strategies.
Finally, Mike thinks it depends on the structure of any particular industry. He suggests people should have a right to their own data. They should be able to download it and use it. However, instituting such a mandate would obviously cause many companies a certain degree of pain, hence it is a politically complex issue.
In closing, Susan asks panelists for a one-sentence manifesto for open government for the next 18 months:
Mark: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Chris: Creating the next generation of government is what we’re about.
With thanks to Julia Ma for sterling editing assistance.