Presentation to FOIFT

My presentation to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas annual conference.

It’s a new world online. Senator Nelson' Selfie

For evidence I offer these exhibits:

  1. The Selfie. Taylor Swift says fans are less interested in an autograph than they are in a selfie with her or a tweet from her. When the Chair of the Texas Senate Finance Committee starts a hearing with a selfie, you know it’s a new world.
  2. Yo. A tweet that just says Yo. It’s gone from a poke to a notification — when your egg is done, when missiles are incoming, write your own use.
  3. New ways to be nostalgic. When I was your age, we took pictures on film in to the one-hour-processing place. Now there’s an app that simulates it — you don’t get to see the pictures for an hour.
  4. Now they have bar codes on the Swedish fleet. Why? So when they return to port…

How do you score Government’s response?

It’s incumbent on Government to take advantage of the new technologies to improve service provision. What goals should it be pursuing? LeCoz and Lage present a framework for open government based on three goals: Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration.  Let’s use this approach.

Open government scheme



Government entered the new world by setting up websites. Boy did we set up websites. According to Ben Balter’s analysis, there are about 1200 federal government domains (ending in .gov). About 1000 are actually live. HHS has 110 domains, GSA has 105, Treasury 92 and Interior 89.  Has this made it any easier to find what we want? It has certainly made more information available if you know where to look, so score a point for transparency. At the same time it has created a niche for sites like Aunt Bertha and opportunities for collaboration.

All 50 state legislatures live-webcast floor debate. 39 do at least some committee hearings.

Government has a lot of data, and making it available (open data) and actionable is an important goal.

  • The State of Texas scores well on open data, ranking eighth in a recent ranking of states, losing points for policies that “require neither machine readability nor government data beyond expenditures .”
  • Code for America maintains a guide and a list of municipal open data projects that is continually growing.
  • The City of Austin has an exemplary open data portal, augmented by a citizen-developed How To guide.
  • Agencies are now making their raw data available to the public. 400 governments around the world post their programming scripts and code on Github, including TxDOT, TWDB, and TNRIS (geospatial data). There are 10,000 government employees using it. However, it’s not user friendly for the average citizen.

You can find much of your government on Facebook, because that’s where the people are, but that presents its own issues from the agency’s perspective.

Terms of Service. The screen you skip over with all the legalese — executive agencies don’t get to skip it. While government uses Twitter under the same rules you do, the federal government has agreements for special terms of service with over 70 companies like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Slideshare. For example, when federal websites include a Bing search engine, they don’t get the ads.  Hulu can play government-generated content but cannot imply it’s any kind of endorsement. On Facebook, the entire indemnity provision is replaced with a requirement for a disclaimer pointing people to the agency’s official website. Unfortunately, states and local governments had to negotiate their own agreement with Facebook — among other things, the original terms of service have language requiring that legal disputes be venued in California courts and adjudicated under California law — so minus one point for collaboration there.

This gets important on Facebook, which will create pages for entities that don’t have their own, but not require verification if, as happened in August 2014, someone wants to make your avatar an otter eating a watermelon. Otter eating a watermelon


There are instances within agencies, across agencies, across levels of government, and with the private sector where technology improves collaboration.

  • The Texas Department of State Health Services maintains the EMS/Trauma Registry. The Texas Department of Transportation is responsible for information about crashes. The two databases don’t talk to each other, yet in ten years in this state there have been 34,000 lives lost in traffic crashes 2.5 million persons injured, and an economic cost of $200 billion. TTI is developing a pilot project with UT and A&M Health Science Centers, DSHS, TxDOT, and DPS to integrate and analyze trauma, crash, citation, engineering, and emergency management data. The outcome will help us understand how the various factors correlate and interact, and how we can maximize safety and interaction. Are there savings in lives, time, and resources from changing highway safety treatments, the way law enforcement is deployed, the design or use of child safety seats?
  • What happens when youth age out of the foster care system? The Department of Family and Protective Services is considering the potential for a cloud-based portal where an individual could access necessary information and not have to worry about losing key documents. This concept is an outgrowth of an Austin hackathon, the ATX Hack for Change, from a concept by Texas Appleseed.
  • A new experiment, Glasshouse Policy, has just kicked off to see if consensus can be reached before issues turn into draft legislation.


Many things are happening to bring citizens closer to their government’s decisionmaking.

  • The Texas A&M Transportation Institute stood up a Virtual Open House as a pilot for a TxDOT project planned for Oak Hill. Diagrams and graphics, written descriptions, real-time chat box with experts, and a feedback mechanism. The test was considered a success. Expect improvements and more instances of implementation.
  • Texas Senate State Affairs is meeting September 16 to take invited testimony on their charge to “Study the online legislative resources available to the public from Texas Senate Committee websites and compare resources to those provided by other state legislative committees in Texas and other states. Determine how Texas Senate websites can be improved to provide a more interactive and transparent government.”

 Transparency, Collaboration, and Participation Combined

The exciting things are happening in the middle of the diagram, where the three goals merge. This is the playground where social media’s immediacy and interactivity shine.

Most state legislatures have overcome the online anxieties and adopted the popular tools — primarily Facebook and Twitter but also YouTube, Pinterest, Google Plus, Flickr, blogs. Utah Senators tried SoundCloud but don’t appear to have gained much from it. Illinois Senate Democrats have a MySpace page but the results aren’t stellar: of their six connections, three are lobbying to legalize marijuana and one is a massage parlor.

According to Dwight Silverman, every member of the US Senate has a Twitter account, and 97% of US House members do.

Twitter is taking us into new territory in the Government/Public Interaction space.

Facebook‘s use is raising its own set of issues.

  • “Prosecutors building a sweeping disabilities-benefit fraud case got a trove of data from the Facebook accounts of more than 380 people, the social media giant said this week as it disclosed a nearly yearlong legal fight over the largest set of search warrants it has ever received.”
  • The Air Force Office of Scientific Research has funded a study at Cornell to use Facebook to track moods in areas of social unrest. In a study titled “Tracking Critical-Mass Outbreaks in Social Contagions,” the study “focuses on the analysis and empirical modeling of the dynamics of social movement mobilization and contagions. They will evaluate the critical mass (tipping point) model on four datasets of digital traces of social contagions, which include Twitter posts and conversations around the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.”
  • Facebook now offers instFacebook automatic translationant translations of posts. Here, they ask if a translation is needed for “FYI, Y’all.”

Big Data falls in this category.

      • At 3:20 AM Sunday, August 24, a 6.0 earthquake struck California. Enough people in Northern California were wearing fitness trackers that tracker-maker Jawbone was able to create a snapshot of the earthquake’s intensity by analyzing sleep disruptions of users in the region.
      • The Guardian has a good discussion of big data, open data, and open government, and how they interact.
      • General Motors knows you’ll drive by the closest dealer for a sale but not for service. They know how old your car is and more. What can they do with that and 37,000 servers?
      • A new app called BuyPartisan lets you scan any barcoded item to discover the political donations made by its producer. The contributions can then be broken down further—by the company’s CEO, board of directors, PAC’s, and employees.

Government and the Fourth Estate

Coming Down the Pike

What can You Do?

  • Seek for data to be published in open formats under an open license and with the contact information of a person who can quickly grant permission for it to be reused. Reward vendors and others for doing so.
  • If you create or own data, make it available. Google has created a Crisis Maps and Public Alerts service.   According to their team, “The biggest challenges around GIS and spatial data aren’t actually technical, they’re licensing-related. During a response, we’ll often see third-party data which would be really valuable to those affected (shelters, bushfire locations, power outages, to name a few recent examples), but the licensing is either unknown, or unclear, or the owners aren’t available or responsive, and we can’t use the data… If I had a GIS magic wand to wave, it would be to turn all of the critical (spatial) data during a disaster to the equivalent of public domain licensed, so we could all use and share it. It’s not enough for data to just be under an open license; the licensing status has to be announced in a really clear way, too, and we have to know that the publisher had the right to publish it under that license.”
  • Make your tweets accessible. Put  your main content first. Put hashtags and @mentions at the end of a post.
  • Make your websites responsive. A website’s ability to adjust for different platforms will make a difference in Google search results as well as other ways.
  • Participate in the process of government. But you knew that.


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