The best form of transparency

Accountability, Featured — By on April 20, 2010 at 1:46 PM

For some, the word “transparency” may seem like a political football. While there exist those who do use it as such, there is a larger worldwide effort to change the perception about government data and its usefulness to the public. Can more disclosure of government data be useful to Alaskans?

Alaska Transparency 1.0 – Some good starts, but still more ground to cover

In 2007, Alaska took a step toward transparency by placing online the “state checkbook.” The idea behind the project is that the citizen would be able to browse the books online and see how the state was spending tax dollars, and it would create fiscal accountability, or at least the means to it. Though the current site has its limitations, it was a good first step.

However, the website is still maintained by the state, and thus relies on state employees to combine and release the information in a useful format. This is too much to ask of any government bureaucracy, not because the people in the bureaucracy are incompetent, but because innovation that brings effective transparency cannot thrive in the hands of a few.

Another example of Alaska transparency is the Bill Action State Inquiry System (BASIS). Like the online checkbook, though it has its limitations, BASIS can be useful to citizens who are willing to take time to learn it. Using the website, it is possible to track how a bill changes as it goes through the legislative process, view the votes cast, and read any fiscal notes attached to the legislation. The agency that maintains BASIS also has a free service that will send you an email when an action is taken on a particular piece of legislation. These are great starts, but they are really just the beginning: A traditional website is content waiting to be unleashed.

Perhaps the most glaring omission of useful transparency is the lack of clear connections between laws that are passed in the legislature and the regulations issued by the executive branch that are based on them. When the legislature considers changing a law, dozens of regulations may be affected as a result of changing just a few words in the bill being considered, but even some legislators find difficulty tracking these changes.

Alaska still has a lot of ground to cover.

Internet mashups: An example

Recently a friend of mine purchased a popular new cell phone from a well-known brand. She showed me one of the applications that she had acquired for the phone that indicated the location of all ATM’s within walking distance. The phone would indicate her location and the location of the ATM’s on a map.

What is unique about this application is that the GPS, the ATM locations and the map were created by 3 completely different parties. The application designer saw the need and used information from the GPS inside the phone, from maps generated by a website, and from addresses provided by the bank servicing the ATM’s to create an application that could mash together all three streams of information into something useful. This kind of innovation (called a mashup) can only happen when the entrepreneurial designer can create something that understands the language of the information he is seeking to mash together.

One useful example of a mashup is opencongress.org, a website that mashes together data of legislation being considered in U.S. Congress from one website with articles about that legislation from blogs and other news sources.

Mashups are a useful concept for any policymaker wanting to bring more fiscal transparency to government. But, mashups can only happen when the numerous streams of information pouring from government are placed in a “structured” format that the entrepreneur can use. XML is an example of a formally structured format.

What makes XML unique from other structured formats is its ability to be sorted and categorized much like data in a spreadsheet application. A spreadsheet can sort and organize information by whatever fields are included. Putting all bills, statutes, state spending data and regulations into a structured format would allow a citizen to see the causal connections between them. It would also be helpful for legislators when they are making policy decisions.

All data from the State of Alaska should be open, meaning that it should not be in a format that is proprietary or copyrighted. For example, an MP3 is a widely accepted open format. As a result, there are numerous pieces of software available that know exactly what to do with an MP3. A customized database, however, may create files that only a programmer could read after creating a program specifically made to read the file. The data should be structured in a way that one could use it for their own mashup or creation. The federal government already uses both RSS and XML formats to disseminate public information.

Finally, all data should be machine readable. Machine readable means a format that is searchable. Consider PDF formats. Machine readable PDF documents are searchable and readable by search engines. But, if the PDF document is an merely an image of the page, searches are not possible. Many state audits and reports are in PDF, but are not machine readable.

One caution about data formats is that they may eventually become obsolete as the landscape of technology changes, as many computer coding languages have. To prepare for this, policymakers should plan to make updates in the future, and ensure that multiple open formats are available. The format that government information should always be made available in is a simple text file where the information is either tab delimited or with a common separator. This is not an expensive undertaking. A tab-delimited text file is a universally understood format that can be created by anyone.

Structure formats can lay groundwork for better management of government by standardizing internal communication. Large departments always have difficulty talking to each other for a variety of reasons: Turnover of top officials can upset continuity; each department may have its own computer system that was custom made to fit the services they offer; each department may have a categorically different language. While all communications problems between departments won’t be solved by placing information into something like XML, a structured format is the first step.

Make sure the information is available online. Citizens should not have to own a fax machine or wait for the delivery of a disk from the post office (much less file a Freedom of Information Act request) to get information that should already be available to the public. Sadly, there is a lot of information that is not online that should be, because no matter what the information is, there will always exist someone who has an interest in keeping it concealed. In order to create a culture of accountability, policymakers need to lead the way by regularly asking the question, “Have adequate disclosures been made?”

All notices, regulations, court rulings, RFP’s and statutes should be issued in RSS format. In order to spur the kind of innovation that brings real transparency, all data issued by state and local government should be in a structured format. Alaska is already doing this in a small way. Public notices are issued in RSS format. When the public notice is issued, the state website publishes a file that can be read by an RSS feed reader. There are several RSS feed readers available on the web to fit a range of users, and there are a wide range of tools available to create these feeds effortlessly. All RSS feeds issued by the state should be collected onto a single page, with an address that doesn’t change so the voter knows where it is.

RSS feeds of information should reflect the sequence of events as they happen. Issuing regulations is a process, and the RSS feed should accurately reflect it. When a regulation is proposed or issued, there should be no delay between the time the information is released and the time it is distributed in RSS format. A “no-delay” rule will ensure that Alaska citizens know that the information they are commenting on is current.

Make the state checkbook, regulations, and statutes available online in XML format. XML allows aggregation of data in new sorts of ways. The sorting capability of XML would be especially useful in Alaska’s state checkbook online, allowing the user to sort by date, category, department, recipient, and many other ways that would be useful. The aggregating capability of XML would allow a mashup that would enable a user to connect bills, statutes, regulations and expenses. Aggregation is a powerful tool.

Cement all good practices into statute. If possible, no good policy should rely on executive order of any governor or the good will compliance of a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies experience turnover as do elected offices. Practice, therefore, should be tested and then put into statute. Policymakers should make all funding for these transparency initiatives a stand-alone appropriation so that whoever is in charge understands that we cannot compromise on making this information available.

Download a hardcopy here.

Jeremy Thompson is the Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum. You can reach him at jthompson@alaskapolicyforum.org

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