Alex Howard

Tipping my open government hat

Alex Howard

Alex Howard

I first met Alex Howard in Los Angeles at Gov20LA a few years ago. This was shortly before he joined O’Reilly Media as its Washington correspondent covering the open government/Gov 2.0 beat.

Since then, he has covered every inch of open government, from open source to open data and everything in between, in a way that has been key to maintaining its relevance over the past three years.

Alex is passionate about his craft and his prolificness is its byproduct.

Yesterday, as I stepped off the plane in SFO, I saw this tweet from him that caused me to reflect on not only his work but the open government movement as it’s progressed since we first met:

When I saw it, I was happy for him for moving on to what I assume is a great opportunity to continue his rise to journalistic stardom. Seeing it also reminded me of the great work he’s done and the important role he’s played in fostering open government’s adoption.

For those paying attention to this space three years ago, we would have never imagined the progress that’s been made since, and Alex has been a tremendous part of facilitating that.

I don’t know what his future plans are, but I’m sure he’ll play an active role in continuing to share the work of civic technologists everywhere. Like many in this community, it’s not just a job for Alex. It’s the way he sees the world.

I just wanted to take a moment and this space to thank him for all his work. Despite living on opposite coasts, I’ve had the pleasure of spending many hours talking with him about this stuff, and I hope to continue that conversation as we watch him rise to the top in his next endeavor.

How the UK is raising the open government bar and setting a new standard

GOV.UK

I’ve been collecting links (below) from the UK’s Government Digital Service blog for a while wondering when they’ll stop executing their great “beta” work on GOV.UK, but they continue to outdo themselves.

As Simon Dickson writes, “Betagov not afraid of public commitment.” See also Alex Howard’s “With GOV.UK, British government redefines the online government platform.”

Many will appreciate UK ICT Futures Programme Director Liam Maxwell’s quote in the Guardian:

“For years we spent on IT systems built for bureaucrats, they were not built for people.”

Here, Maxwell outlines the role of IT in open and efficient government:

Links:

MC Hammer: ‘These tools create a level of transparency that sometimes can be uncomfortable’

O’Reilly Media’s Alex Howard interviewed musician and tech entrepreneur MC Hammer at the 2011 Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco where, towards the end, Hammer talks about the impact social media, mobile and crowdsourcing have on government.

Excerpt:

“Local governments, they’re not good at engaging the public at large. They’re still finding their feet with respect to using these platforms and dropping their guards and stop being afraid of social media, because remember, these tools create a level of transparency that sometimes can be uncomfortable. You no longer dictate the corporate message to the community, but the community speaks back, and they voice their opinions.”

Beautiful budgets? Look at Cook

Look at Cook

Developed and designed by Derek Eder and Nick Rougeux, open data and visualization project Look at Cook was created in collaboration with Cook County (IL) Commissioner John Fritchey to bring aesthetics to the county’s budget and expenses.

We asked Eder and Rougeux to share what they learned working on the project and how others can make government data more accessible to citizens (see also Alex Howard’s review of Look at Cook on O’Reilly Radar).

How did the idea for lookatcook.com come about?

After being installed as a Cook County Commissioner, John Fritchey, along with the rest of the Board of Commissioners, had to tackle a very difficult budget season. He realized that even though the budget books were presented in the best accounting-format possible and were also posted online in pdf format, this information was still not friendly to the public in general. After some internal discussion, one of his staff members, Seth Lavin approached myself and Nick Rougeux to develop a visualization that would let the public easily explore and understand the budget in greater detail. Seth and I had previously connected through some of Chicago’s open government social functions and we were looking for an opportunity for the county and the open government community to collaborate.

How did you develop it?

We were given the data in a fairly raw format as a basic spreadsheet broken down into appropriations and expenditures by department and year back to 1993. We were already familiar with other popular visualizations like the New York Times’ federal budget and Death and Taxes poster from WallStats, however while they were intriguing they seemed to lack a level of clarity. We wanted to explore how we could illustrate the budget in a way that anyone could explore without being an expert in county government.

Our research began with basic charts to get an initial idea of what the data looked like. Considering the nature of the data, we knew we wanted to show trends over time and let people compare departments, funds, and control officers. This made line and bar charts a natural choice. From there, we created a couple iterations of wireframes and storyboards to get an idea of the visual layout and style. Given our prior technical experience building websites at Webitects, we decided to use free tools like jQuery for front-end functionality and Google Fusion Tables to house the data. We’re also big fans of Google Analytics so we’re using it to track how people are using the site.

Collectively, we and Commissioner Fritchey’s office agreed that clear descriptions of everything were crucial to the success of the site so his office diligently spent the time to write and collected them. They also made connections between all the data points so seeing what control officer was in charge of what department. They also hunted down the official websites for each department.

What insights did you glean from the visualized data and any feedback from the community on this?

During the launch of the app, while being presented to a small group of Open Data enthusiasts, it was made apparent to us that displaying the data in this format shined a light on the inner workings of the Cook County Government. An example of this would be seeing the drop in appropriations for the office of the Cook County President which dropped by 74% from 2010. There are many other insights like this, which is why we want more citizens and journalists to explore it on their own.

What plans do you have for expanding it?

The lookatcook.com site’s app will continue evolving as more and more data is made available, soon to come the Capital Improvements appropriations approved a few weeks ago for this year will be added to the data. As soon as the 2011 expenses are released, that info will be added also. The site was designed and built to be flexible for just about any budget, provided the data are cleaned up and in a similar format. We’re open to collaborating with other municipalities or offices interested in making their budgets transparent—hopefully starting with the City of Chicago.

How can other cities and municipalities leverage this?

By making the information easily available, the public can feel invited to participate in budget debates. The public needs to know where their money is being spent and how government funds the services they are mandated to offer. Misinformation can lead to frustrating situations, dissolution, and distrust in our governments. The more we can do to inform the public, the better for everyone involved. By having this visualization out there as a positive example of what can be done, we hope that others will take a cue and develop more budget transparency initiatives.

On this day one year ago, Alex Howard published his first GovFresh post

Alex HowardOn this day one year ago, Alex Howard published his first GovFresh post. Since then, he has written a total of 302 on his OpenGovFresh blog (subscribe).

Thank you Alex for your contributions and support of GovFresh, but also all the work you do for the entire open government community. There are many ideas, innovators, apps and events that don’t get covered by mainstream media and, if they weren’t covered by you, would never move beyond our community of Gov 2.0 enthusiasts. Blogging is powerful, and you do important work.

As I’ve said many times, Alex Howard is the “Hardest Working Man in Gov 2.0 Business.”

Follow Alex’s work on O’Reilly Radar or connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

New Gov2 TV launches ‘for what’s hot in open government from around the world’

Gov2 TV, a new television show focused on Gov 2.0 and open government, launched this week. The show, hosted by Walter Schwabe, featured O’Reilly Media Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent Alex Howard and Our Say Australia Communications and Community Manager Linh Do in its inaugural episode.

“Gov2 on fusedlogicTV will aim to be your weekly live and on-demand source for what’s hot in Open Government from around the world,” said Schwabe announcing the show.

Here’s the first episode:

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: