transparency

Ask Not What Technology Leaders Can Do for You, Mr. Trump, But What the DATA Act Can Do for Them

According to a New York Times report on President-Elect Donald Trump’s meeting with technology leaders last week, Mr. Trump asked the executives “to see if they could not apply data analysis technology to detect and help get rid of government waste.”

They can not. The existence of data that would permit them to do so will be dictated by the Trump administration’s approach to implementing the DATA Act.

Transparency and its Discontents

A preliminary draft paper on transparency that Cass Sunstein posted last month inspired Vox’s Matthew Yglesias to editorialize “Against Transparency” this week. Both are ruminations that shouldn’t be dealt with too formally, and in that spirit I’ll say that my personal hierarchy of needs doesn’t entirely overlap with Yglesias’.

In defense of selective government opacity, he says: “We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.”

Speak for yourself, buddy! The status quo in government management may need that, but that status quo is no need of mine.

A pithy, persuasive response to Yglesias came from the AP’s Ted Bridis, who pointed out via Twitter the value of recorded telephone calls for unearthing official malfeasance. Recordings reveal, for example, that in 2014 U.S. government officials agreed to restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, in response to local officials’ desire to keep news helicopters from viewing the protests there. Technological change might counsel putting more of public officials’ communications “on the record,” not less.

It’s wise of Sunstein to share his piece in draft—in its “pre-decisional” phase, if you will—because his attempt to categorize information about government decision-making as “inputs” and “outputs” loses its intuitiveness as you go along. Data collected by the government is an output, but when it’s used for deciding how to regulate, it’s an input, etc. These distinctions would be hard to internalize and administer, certainly at the scale of a U.S. federal government, and would collapse when administered by government officials on their own behalf.

President Obama Needn’t Go to SXSW…

In his weekly address last Saturday, President Obama touted the importance of technology and innovation, and his plans to visit the popular South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He said he would ask for “ideas and technologies that could help update our government and our democracy.” He doesn’t need to go to Texas. Simple technical ideas with revolutionary potential continue to await action in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, the White House’s Third Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America included a commitment to develop and publish a machine-readable government organization chart. It’s a simple, but brilliant step forward, and the plan spoke of executing on it in a matter of months.

Having access to data that represents the organizational units of government is essential to effective computer-aided oversight and effective internal management. Presently, there is no authoritative list of what entities make up the federal government, much less one that could be used by computers. Differing versions of what the government is appear in different PDF documents scattered around Washington, D.C.’s bureaucracies. Opacity in the organization of government is nothing if not a barrier to outsiders that preserves the power of insiders—at a huge cost in efficiency.

One of the most important ideas and technologies that could help update our government and democracy is already a White House promise. In fact, it’s essentially required by law.

Just Give Us the Data! End-of-Term Org-Chart Edition

Public oversight of government and internal managment could both improve dramatically with an authoritative, machine-readable representation of what the federal government is. Right now, there isn’t a list of all of the federal government’s agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects. That’s a big part of why the government is run so badly and so impervious to change. The government is illegible, even to many insiders.

Better Data, More Light on Congress

There’s an old joke about a drunk looking for his keys under a lamp post. A police officer comes along and helps with the search for a while, then asks if it’s certain that the keys were lost in that area.

“Oh no,” the drunk says. “I lost them on the other side of the road.”

“Why are we looking here?!”

“Because the light is better!”

In a way, the joke captures the situation with public oversight of politics and public policy. The field overall is poorly illuminated, but the best light shines on campaign finance. There’s more data there, so we hear a lot about how legislators get into office. We don’t keep especially close tabs on what elected officials do once they’re in office, even though that’s what matters most.

(That’s my opinion, anyway, animated by the vision of an informed populace keeping tabs on legislation and government spending as closely as they track, y’know, baseball, the stock market, and the weather.)

Our Deepbills project just might help improve things. As I announced in late August, we recently achieved the milestone of marking up every version of every bill in the 113th Congress with semantically rich XML. That means that computers can automatically discover references in federal legislation to existing laws in every citation format, to agencies and bureaus, and to budget authorities (both authorizations of appropriations and appropriations).

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

Police Body Cameras Raise Privacy Issues for Cops and the Public

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - transparency