Sunlight Foundation

GAO needs a better digital strategy. Here’s how 18F and USDS can help.

gao.gov

Source: gao.gov

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the fiscal and administrative state of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, both established to make federal government digital services work better for users, and it appears the agency could use some help from the two on its own website, gao.gov.

Here are four ways GAO’s digital operations must be rebooted to meet the needs of today’s web user, and how 18F and USDS helped us better understand all of this.

HTTPS

The GAO website is not secure for users visiting gao.gov.

As 18F has emphasized, HTTPS protects visitor privacy with a secure, encrypted connection and is an important practice for .gov domains to adhere to.

The move to HTTS for all .gov websites began more than a year ago, yet gao.gov still remains unencrypted.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created a number of HTTPS resources for governments and agencies having difficulty understanding its importance and quickly adopting it.

Mobile-friendly

The GAO website is not mobile-friendly.

Whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop, gao.gov doesn’t adapt to the device you’re using. As billions of people around the world are now using mobile devices to access information, it’s requisite that all government websites are mobile-friendly so their services are accessible to everyone.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created the U.S. Web Design Standards that makes it easy for anyone creating government websites to build mobile-friendly sites (including accessible color schemes, which GAO does a mediocre job on).

Update:

Alex Howard notes that GAO has a separate mobile version (launched in 2010) of its website and an app (launched in 2012). While these were great technological enhancements at the time, they no longer meet today’s standards around responsive design and streamlined development practices.

Rather than building one site that adapts to all devices, GAO has created two development environments and duplicated development costs.

While an app is certainly mobile, it doesn’t qualify in this case, as it’s a secondary outlet to the website.

Open data

GAO does not have a comprehensive open data strategy.

While the site provides a great list of RSS feeds, not all reports are in data-friendly formats (all are, however, in PDFs). There also appears to be no public application programming interface (however Sunlight Foundation has created one via its Sunlight Congress API).

Unsurprisingly, GAO’s report on 18F and USDS isn’t available through an open, accessible, digital format.

Fortunately for GAO, while not directly created by 18F or USDS, but done by many who now serve in each, there is Project Open Data to help it get started on executing an effective open data strategy.

Analytics

GAO doesn’t participate in the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

As the agency that provides oversight on federal government activities, it would be great to have more transparency into its website analytics.

Given that gao.gov is already using Google Analytics, and familiar with its tools, this is easily resolved with a simple snippet of code provided by DAP.

Thoughts

I get nervous when policymakers take a myopic approach to assessing technology, especially in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C., where there are behind-the-scenes personal and business relationships that impact motivations around critiquing new initiatives like 18F and USDS.

I especially get nervous when an agency charged with overseeing federal government technology practices fails the digital test.

If GAO is serious about modernizing its own digital strategy, 18F and USDS can surely help.

Thank you, Ellen Miller

Ellen Miller (Photo: Sunlight Foundation)

Ellen Miller (Photo: Sunlight Foundation)

Today, Sunlight Foundation announced Chris Gates will take over as its new president in October after co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller said she would step down from eight years at the helm.

“I truly believe that open and equal access to information is the bedrock of democracy,” Ellen wrote in February announcing her departure. “Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions. With it, citizens learn who and what they can trust. This belief has always been the passion of my life as it will always be the Sunlight Foundation’s goal.”

Because of this belief, everyone in the modern open government movement — from the civic hackers to the federal C-suite to everyone in between who champions the importance of open data — can thank Ellen for being instrumental in driving what is fundamental to civic innovation as we practice and celebrate it today.

I still remember when I first launched GovFresh and, within days, Ellen blogged about it. Having left Washington, D.C. years before for California, I had grown increasingly disenchanted and removed from what happened inside the Beltway. My work with GovFresh has changed that sentiment over the years, and Ellen’s small post was part of the spark that made me think perhaps Washington was getting the disruption it needed, backed less by political mudslinging, and more by a simple, straightforward path to transparency and economic innovation.

Many incredible people in the civic movement have worked under Ellen at Sunlight. From policy to technology, it has become the incubator of open innovation and innovators in Washington, and has produced many people I’ve come to admire beyond just their work there.

The first time I met Ellen was at TransparencyCamp West at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, where I interviewed her about what we then called “Gov 2.0.” I still remember that day well, meeting the Sunlight team, attending my first unconference, and realizing there were now people in Washington “just like me.” If DC was then like it was today, I would probably still be there. For those who consider themselves civic and government innovators within the Beltway, Ellen and Sunlight helped make that happen.

I’m excited about what’s to come with Chris as its new leader, but it’s also bittersweet to see Ellen step down. It’s hard to imagine the open government movement without her but, no matter what she does after, her legacy will continue to inspire the next generation of civic idealists the same way she’s inspired me.

Thank you, Ellen Miller.

America needs a .gov backup plan

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The federal government is closed indefinitely as are many of its websites, including data.gov, a foundation of U.S. entrepreneurial innovation and public information.

From the memo released by the White House referencing .gov agency action:

If an agency’s website is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency’s website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that notifies the public of the following: (a) information on the website may not be up to date, (b) transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and (c) the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Regardless of what’s happening between the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, why is America in this situation, and what can we do to ensure it never happens again?

In the case of Data.gov, Sunlight Foundation makes a great case that government APIs aren’t a backup plan and offers its own suggestions:

  • Publish downloadable bulk data before or concurrently with building an API.
  • Explicitly encourage reuse and republishing of their data. (Considering public reuse of data a risk to the public is not recommended.)
  • Document what data will remain during a shutdown, and keep this up all the time. Don’t wait until the day before (or of) a shutdown.
  • Link to alternative sources for their data. Keep these links up during a shutdown.

Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd answers part of the issue in a recent post, where he advocates a community-based approach to hosting public data:

The City of Philadelphia has designated the community-built Open Data Philly website as it’s official data directory for open data – we’re the only big city in the country (maybe the only city period) that does not unilaterally control the data portal where city departments publish their data.

We see informal, reactive examples of Philadelphia’s strategy happening via organizations like Code for America, who has mirrored Census Bureau TIGER shapefile data.

These suggestions and options are a great first step, but what about the entire .gov ecosystem?

There is an enormous amount of information Americans can’t access that isn’t structured data, most noticeably in the form of nasa.gov, the website that hosts information about our country’s space operations.

When a hurricane is making its way to destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a warning to potentially impacted areas to take appropriate safety measures. Areas seriously hit receive immediate federal funding to ensure the affected communities are stabilized in a timely manner.

What federal agency is responsible for preserving our data economy and ensuring public information is accessible during a national emergency, in this case a government shutdown?

What contingency plan is in place to ensure our .gov ecosystem is available when a political storm hits?

Here’s my 2-point .gov backup plan:

  • Develop all web operations in non-licensed, open source software. This enables others to re-purpose this technology in an efficient manner free from financial and legal restrictions.
  • In the event of a potential shutdown, release all code and content to the public through platforms such as GitHub (this should be done regularly anyways).

This simple plans ensures entrepreneurial ventures and civic communities can rally to stand up these operations in the event of an emergency.

The Federal Chief Information Officers Council is tasked with maintaining the integrity of America’s IT infrastructure. They’ve done a great job of facilitating plans for mobility, security and even a more digitally-attuned government, but it’s time to set in place a national .gov backup plan.

Whether it’s the CIO Council, FEMA, General Services Administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy or all of the above, when our government is open for business again, let’s get the appropriate leadership together and move forward on a stronger contingency plan that can weather the next political hurricane.

Is open government closing?

Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller said what’s been on many minds of late during her ‘Open Government Scorecard’ speech at Gov 2.0 Summit today. In a nutshell, “the drive for transparency appears stalled,” she said. Miller highlights the lack of data quality on data.gov and USAspending.gov and gives an overview of Sunlight Foundation’s new Website, ClearSpending.org, a scorecard for data accuracy on USAspending.gov.

Here’s the full text of her speech and a few strong quotables:

We are beginning to worry that the Administration is more interested in style than substance.

If we settle for a superficial kind of approach, Gov 2.0 will be remembered as a failure. Government has learned to say the right things — now we need government to actually get serious about technology and transparency.

Our job is to hold the Administration’s feet to the fire – bureaucrats aren’t going to act just because someone asks nicely. Government isn’t going to change how and when it makes data available – even when a few good people on the inside want it to – because of a directive.

It’s not going to happen until laws are changed, or Executive Orders are issued, or until enforcers are given real power and the President himself makes it a priority.

Video of speech:

O’Reilly Media Washington correspondent Alex Howard interviews Miller at Gov 2.0 Summit:

TransparencyData.com shines light on campaign contributions from last 20 years

Sunlight Foundation has launched TransparencyData, a new Website that lets users easily access the past 20 years of federal and state campaign contributions all in one place. The site merges data from OpenSecrets, FollowTheMoney.org and lobbying information from the Senate Office of Public Records.

Sunlight Labs Director Clay Johnson:

“This tool is focused on giving people bulk access to data. Instead of generating complex visualizations, and a slick user interface, we’ve focused on making it easy to query this large dataset, and walk away with a spreadsheet of the data you need. The ultimate output of this tool isn’t an HTML table, but a CSV file so you can take the data and do the research you need to do … Look for government contracting, earmarks, and congressional biographical data coming shortly.”

Video overview:

More from Sunlight:

‘Design for America’ contest aims to make government data more accessible

Sunlight Labs is holding a civic design contest, Design for America, in an effort to “make government data more accessible and comprehensible to the American public.” Categories are Data Visualization, Process Transparency and Redesigning the Government.

From Sunlight:

This 10 week long design and data visualization extravaganza is focused on connecting the talents of art and design communities throughout the country to the wealth of government data now available through bulk data access and APIs, and to help nurture the field of information visualization.

Top prize is $5,000 for each of these categories:

  • Data Visualization of Sunlight Community Data
  • Visualization of Data from the Federal Budget and/or USASpending.gov
  • Visualization of Recovery.gov Data
  • Visualization of How a Bill Becomes a Law
  • Visualization of Congressional Rules/Floor Procedures
  • Redesign of a Government Form
  • Redesign of a .Gov website

Submissions are due May 17, and winners will be announced May 27 at Gov 2.0 Expo. Sponsors include Adobe, Google, O’Reilly Media, TechWeb, Gov 2.0 Expo and Palantir.

Introducing the Cycle of Transparency

Government transparency is that rarest of political phenomena — a great idea with support across the political spectrum and popularity among the public. Yet, here we are in the 21st century with every tool we would need to make government more transparent and accountable, and still we are operating with a government that often behaves as it did in the 19th century.

So, transparent government is a good thing, but we do not yet have one. Now what?

It’s clear that there is a breakdown between conceptual support for the idea of government transparency and enacting the changes necessary to make it so. There is fear and resistance to change inside government that requires cultural, political, and attitude adjustments. And there’s a large gap between the good intentions of citizens and watchdog groups and think tanks and reporters, and translating those good intentions into effective results. Many people want to act, but they rarely know how or where to begin.

For many, the concept of transparency still simply feels too vague to get behind in a meaningful way. People strongly support transparency in theory, but don’t know what they would need to do, or how they would need to think, to create the “open, transparent government” we talk about.

We’ve grappled with these challenges at Sunlight since our founding four years ago, and have been thinking about it with increased urgency over the last year in particular. How do we connect all the necessary parties and resources, and how do we put them together and act on them in the right way to actually make government more open and transparent?

Perhaps even more challenging: how do we explain it to people in a way that helps them know where they fit?

Now, the pieces are falling into place.

We know that at the heart of the open, transparent government we seek is ‘open’ government data that is available online and in real-time.

Government information should be as accessible to us as information about the weather, sports scores or knowing what’s going on in the stock market — and we need it to be this way so we can both hold government accountable and create new enterprise with what is made available to us.

In order to reach our vision of an open government – or an online, real-time government – we also know there are a number of “things” that must occur – and not just occur once, but continue to happen over time and continuously reinforce each other along the way.

This “Cycle of Transparency” demonstrates, in one image, the specific actions and the variety of actors that need to work together to create the open, transparent government we seek. We hope this graphic can be a useful tool in thinking about how to make city, state, federal, and even international governments more transparent.

Each type of actor and action complements the others in the Cycle to make every other element easier, or even possible at all. Of great importance is that just about anyone – from hardcore Internet developers to academics to government staff to reporters to activists – has a place in it.

One of the first places we often start in talking about transparency is in the crafting of policies that require the release of data from government. While no one piece of this Cycle is “first” or more important than others, the legislative component is a useful starting point. (Mostly because it’s the first one we wrote down.)

Lawmakers, lobbyists and think tanks (as well as citizens) all play a role in articulating new transparency policies and pushing them through the twists and turns of government processes. Those policies must adhere to core principles of openness, such as making sure government data is “raw,” that it is complete, or that it is searchable (in total, there are nine of these openness principles that government data should adhere to).

These principles aren’t things that government is accustomed to just yet, so the advocacy process is pretty difficult, and the subsequent “gap” between writing new legislation and actually getting legislation passed is more like a “chasm.”

One of the beautiful aspects of open government, however, is that while laws are written (and should be passed) to require the release of government data, Congress, federal agencies, states and cities can – in most cases – become more open and transparent without new laws.

Sidenote: A great example of “enacting without law” is that no law has been passed requiring all federal legislation to be available online for 72 hours before it is debated by Congress. Yet in 2009, Congress showed again and again that it could post bills online for three days before debate without the law requiring that action. Similarly, the “Open Government Directive,” released in a memo by the White House, has made all kinds of new government data available without laws to require it. (Though, it would be ideal if Congress codified the Directive into law to give it a lasting impact.)

Once data is released, government agencies (such as the Department of Energy or Transportation) and web developers anywhere can build the necessary technology to organize the data and make it usable. Federal repositories like Data.gov or Sunlight’s National Data Catalog are great examples of this type of public/private foundation building.

In the way of analogy, one way to think about this entire process is that it turns government into a type of public data wholesaler through which the public can build retail outlets.

With data being made easily accessible, journalists and bloggers can begin to dig into it, mix it up, identify relevant information and give the data context. As that critical context is provided, citizens absorb it and spread the information to others – both online and face-to-face – and make the data actionable.

Ultimately, informed citizen action creates greater public awareness; citizens become more effective, responsible advocates; holding government accountable becomes informed by data rather than inside-the-Beltway pundits, and better decisions can be made for our democracy.

As each element of the Cycle of Transparency moves forward concurrently, bringing about the changes we need to create a more transparent government, we also identify new needs.

At the end of the day, the process that the Cycle of Transparency describes is about creating a government more deserving of our trust, and ultimately, a government that allows its citizens to fully participate and hold government accountable as our Founders intended.

Introducing Sunlight Live

What if we were able to “cover” live events in a new way using government data that we’re able to compile and connect it to political events and personas of the day?

Today we’re going to take this idea to the next step by beginning to connect government data such as campaign contributions or lobbyist meetings to a political event in real-time. As Republican and Democratic leaders come together to debate health care in a public forum, Sunlight is going to provide an alternative to the mainstream media’s coverage. In a replicable pilot we are calling Sunlight Live, our team will connect data such as the aforementioned lobbying contributions or “revolving door”connections the meeting’s participants may have, and put them right next to the video feed, as any particular politician is speaking.

We think Sunlight can offer a unique live perspective on the debate in the midst of the media frenzy, by focusing not on the merits of health care, but on the money, connections, and influence data to which we have created access. In addition to displaying data from Sunlight and its grantees’ projects, our staff will once again be live blogging, facilitating online conversation via Twitter, and engaging the open government community in research as the debate unfolds. We don’t yet know exactly what we’ll need or what will work best … but that’s the point.

We’ll be getting things started at 10 a.m. with the beginning of the meeting. Hope you’ll join us!

An emblem for open government

As we’ve written about quite a lot so far in 2010, we are launching a national campaign to make government more open, transparent, and ultimately: accountable.

Today, we’re excited to put out one of the most important parts of building this campaign: the “emark” that will be emblematic of what we as an open government community stand for.

If you hadn’t noticed it yet, this is it at right.

This mark (as part of a full logo below) is a very important step because we’re not just building a campaign. This is a movement we’re part of. And when we say “we,” it is not just “the Sunlight Foundation” that we are talking about. It’s all of us who care about changing the relationship citizens have with their government by making it more transparent, participatory and collaborative. It’s anyone who thinks that government can work better on their behalf and has a responsibility to do so.

We hope this emblem is a first step in giving us something we can all own and point to as a symbol for what open government means to us, and what we believe. We hope it becomes a rallying point for those standing up to make an open, transparent government something we can hang our hat on – or our iPhones and Androids on.

We believe that what government does, how it is influenced, or how it spends our money are all things that are public information – and today, “public” means that the government’s data must be accessible by any citizen, at any time, from anywhere: online and in real-time.

Through the campaign we hope to dramatically further the movement for open government that has been building, and give it the infrastructure it needs to be successful at the local, state and federal levels for years to come.

The full logo that we’ve created for the campaign looks like this at left, and is what we’ll use for things like the campaign’s central website. While “Public=Online” could (or, will, I should say) one day be a fulfilled goal as a campaign and no longer be needed, the open government mark as indicated above is “evergreen” as we say, and can be used for years to come – no matter the campaign needs of the day related to openness and transparency. It’s also intentionally not “Sunlight centric” (one of our criteria), so that while it may be “powered by Sunlight,” any organization working toward government transparency can use it on their website or in their materials.

There were a large number of other criteria that we at Sunlight, and others around the country, felt the emblem needed to fulfill, and this video by our new media wiz, Noah Kunin, very creatively walks us through some of the logo’s features.

Google Group

The Wiki

We will launch our nationwide campaign in full in March to put necessary pressure on government and build the massive political muscle that will be required to get government to do what we need. Please join us by getting involved in whatever way works best for you. If you’re reading this, you’re already helping actually. The next step is join in the conversation via our Google Group “Citizens for Open Government” or even simply leave a comment below letting us know what you think.