What if government were treated as an open platform available to everyone — much like the Web — rather than as a closed, semi-proprietary platform that serves those private interests with the money or insider access? That was the premise behind a major conference in Washington, D.C., on September 9-10 hosted by open-source champion and book publisher Tim O’Reilly and Richard O’Neill of the Highlands Group. The event, Government 2.0 Summit, http://www.gov2summit.com/ brought together a remarkable array of tech leaders, government officials, citizen advocates, entrepreneurs and others.
The chief focus was on how digital technologies could make government more transparent and accountable, a theme that President Obama embraced in his Inaugural Address. How can the innovations of Web 2.0 such as “crowd-sourcing” and wiki-style collaboration be used to make government projects smarter and more effective?
Photo by o passion,, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
There were lots of great presentations at the conference, which can be viewed here. Among the highlights: Tim O’Reilly and Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer of Amazon on how cloud computing could help government; Vivek Kundra, the first chief information officer of the U.S. Government, on how to develop more open data systems; and Lena Trudea of the National Academy of Public Administration on how to integrate mass collaboration with government bureaucracies;
A real stand-out presentation, however, was Carl Malamud’s, “Of the People,” on the need for government to make much more of its information available for free online. Malamud, as head of Public.Resource.org, is the tireless guerilla crusader for access to government information. You can watch a video of the speech here or read it in pamphlet form (on a pdf) here.
Malamud\‘s speech called for treating “government as platform” (O’Reilly’s phrase), which means “exposing the core information that makes government function, information that is of tremendous economic value to society. Government information??“patents, corporate ?lings, agriculture research, maps, weather, medical research??“is the raw material of innovation, creating a wealth of business opportunities that drive our economy forward. Government information is a form of infrastructure, no less important to our modern life than our roads, electrical grid, or water systems.”
Malamud then traced the waves of progress in making government information more available — from the “Founder’s Wave” which first established the principle that government must communicate with the people, to the “Lincoln wave” that established the principles of documentation and consultation. He said that we are now entering a third wave, “an Internet wave,” in which “the underpinnings and machinery of government are used not only by bureaucrats and civil servants, but by the people. This change has the potential to be equally fundamental.”
A transformation occurred when the Securities and Exchange Commission — with prodding from Malamud and others — put its EDGAR database of ?lings of public corporations and other ?nancial institutions on the Internet. Suddenly, you didn’t have to go to a special reading room in Washington or pay an exorbitant fee to a private information vendor.
There remain many significant barriers to access to government information, however, which prompts Malamud to ask: “How can there be equal protection under the law or due process under the law??“how can we be a nation of laws, not a nation of men??“if the law is locked up behind a cash register, stamped with an unwarranted copyright assertion, and then shrink-wrapped in a license agreement, creating private parcels from the public domain? To purchase in bulk a collection of legal materials costs tens of millions of dollars, a barrier to competition that has resulted in decades of lost innovation for the legal profession. The fees for bulk legal data are a signi?cant barrier to free enterprise, but an insurmountable barrier for the public interest.\”
Finally, Malamud includes an appendix of 29 things that the government can do right now to make its information more accessible. I repeat them in full here because they are so specific, concrete and practical. What\‘s the holdup?
29 THINGS GOVERNMENT COULD DO TODAY
1. OMB Circular A-130 should be modi?ed to specify 3 levels of distribution for government data: ?rst government makes bulk data available; second, government creates an API to access the bulk data; third, government builds a
web site using their own API.
2. The 8 Principles of Government Bulk Data should be encoded into law, supplementing the case-by-case access of the Freedom of Information Act with basic principles of distribution for all government information.
3. The House of Representatives Broadcast Studio contains hundreds of congressional hearings. Congress should make this archive available to digitize so we can re-release
this important historical material back into the public domain.
4. When Congress webcasts, they usually use proprietary webcast technologies, such as Real Video. But, all of these proprietary solutions also contain the capability to encode content in less-proprietary formats, such as MPEG4. All committees in the U.S. Congress that webcast should be required to switch to open formats.
5. Broadcast-quality video from Congressional hearings could be made available today for download by FTP for selected committees. Congress should start trials now
instead of continuing to delay.
6. Credentials to broadcast or ?lm congressional hearings are controlled by the Radio-TV Correspondents Gallery, governed by a committee of old media stalwarts. It is no
surprise “new” media are always denied credentials. Congress should reform the credentials process.
7. The Supreme Court should install their own cameras to provide footage of oral arguments. Allowing print reporters and releasing audio, but refusing to provide
video is an arti?cial barrier on access that is elitist, bene?ting those who live and work inside of the Beltway at the expense of the rest of America.
8. All PDF documents entered into the judiciary’s PACER system should be signed by the court indicating when they are received and showing that no changes to the
documents have been made since ?ling.
9. All PACER documents should be made available to the Federal Depository Library Program so that libraries might archive and preserve the records of the federal judiciary.
10. A complete audit of the PACER system for privacy violations, such as Social Security Numbers, names of minor children, and improperly unsealed documents should be conducted as a matter of pressing urgency.
11. Bulk access to the PACER system should be provided to allow download of large numbers of documents.
12. The PACER system brings in far more in revenue than it costs to operate the system. Even if free access is not provided, costs should be immediately reduced to comply with the law.
13. The Federal Judicial Center spends millions of dollars producing video that is only available on J-Net, an intranet that reaches only courtrooms. This educational material should be made available to the public on the Internet.
14. The Librarian of Congress, Smithsonian Secretary, National Archivist, and Public Printer should get together to create a public domain video library.
15. The Government Printing Of?ce should make press-quality PDFs available of any documents they print that are not subject to security or privacy considerations. In
particular, press-quality masters for any high-end books should be made available so the private sector can reprint and repurpose them.
16. The Government Printing Of?ce runs an Institute of Federal Printing right next to Union Station. They should dramatically upgrade the program into a U.S. Publishing
Academy that provides comprehensive training to the rest of the government on how to publish and communicate effectively.
17. The Government Printing Of?ce has in?nite power in its downtown location and is directly on most major ?ber routes. GPO should put in an extensive machine room in
cooperation with other government “cloud” efforts at GSA and NASA.
18. Congressional computer systems are so antiquated that House mail accounts are limited to 200 Mbytes. The Government Printing Of?ce should provide 1 petabyte of disk to the Congress.
19. The Federal Depository Library Program archive should be immediately scanned and the legislation governing FDLP modi?ed so that dual regional repositories per state are no longer required.
20. The Library of Congress should withdraw copyright assertions and stop charging for bibliographic data and copyright registration databases.
21. Binders for all U.S. Patents should be digitized and released in bulk at no charge. Binders contain the application, any rulings, the grant, and any appeals for a patent.
22. The IRS should stop selling non-pro?t tax returns as a series of DVDs containing one TIFF ?le per page and should instead publish PDF ?les for FTP access at no charge.
23. The CIO in the Executive Of?ce of the President should fund the immediate creation of an open source redaction toolkit built on top of open source OCR software such as Tesseract.
24. The Of?cial Journals of Government should be modi?ed to include basic formatting features such as indented lists, tagging of dates, and tagging of cross-links.
25. The Smithsonian has 6,288 public domain photographs available as high-resolution scans. They should release those photos back in the public domain and lead in the creation of a public domain stock footage library for creative applications such as ?lms.
26. The Smithsonian should host a Maker Faire on the National Mall to spotlight the “risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” both inside and outside of government.
27. OMB should periodically audit all government web sites for broken links, invalid HTML, and Section 508 violations and publish ranked charts of how different departments compare with each other.
28. The State Department should commission an immediate audit of the U.S. Passport and Secure Travel Document programs to assess if the use of RFID chips pose a danger to the bearers.
29. Private and proprietary law should not be used in federal or state law. Incorporation by Reference of standards from bodies such as ANSI or Underwriters Laboratories should only be allowed if the underlying standards are made freely available.