It should not come as a big surprise, but with the success of the “transparent government” movement and open data, everyone is now branding themselves as such. Sadly the majority of investments are taking the same old government approach and repackaging it as “transparent”. Add a few new collateral pieces, a fresh web page, then place an article in a government magazine proclaiming it all true.

I’m all for folks jumping on the transparency bandwagon – the more support and progress the better. What does not get me terribly excited is when it’s the same old thing repackaged. It is classic bait and switch. Call it something new then buy more of the same old approach. Take, for instance, this article from Government Computer News entitled “Visualization tools improve transparency by making sense of raw data”. GCN talks about how government can enable transparency through visualization tools, which boils down to vendors selling the government a bunch of stuff to make pretty pictures. I think this sums it up best “Agencies are being graded about how transparent they are, and a quick and easy win is to get some data and visualize it on the Web site,” said Susie Adams, chief technology officer at Microsoft’s federal division.

Buy our tools to make some pretty pictures, and magic presto you are “transparent”. So, what passes as transparency in this new regime? Well the mapping highlight was this implementation by Pitney-Bowes MapInfo for Cumberland County, NC. If you are on Firefox, Safari, Chrome or any browser other than IE you, of course, can’t see the map. So, I’ve added an image from it:


Yup – this is what passes for transparency. Including an egregious license saying you can’t use the data for anything – including my favorite bit, “The reader should not rely on the data provided herein for any reason.” Further, no ability to download the data even though you could not use it for anything and user interface from 1995. I’m not sure what is worse GCN picking this out as something to highlight or MapInfo and Cumberland County advertising it as “transparency”.

The sad bit is this is not an outlier. I’ve been seeing press releases, marketing slicks and articles like this on a regular basis. So, how to tell real transparency initiatives from the masquerading wolves? I’d suggest the following guidelines:

1) You should be able to download the raw data or subscribe to a feed of it
2) Data formats should be open standards and not be proprietary
3) Data should be under a license that allows reuse and remixing (creative commons, public domain etc.)
4) Users should be able to dictate how they want the data visualized and filtered if a visualization option is included

The take away this confirms for me is that the government is not very good at building software. The goal with transparency and open data was to let the government focus on data and open it up to the market to do cool tech things with it. You get better accountability and transparency because the data is all open, and better tech because it is not beltway bandits building it.

Unfortunately all to often it is the opposite. No open data and really bad web application to look at canned information. It is all to easy to skew data with maps and charts. Just allowing users to look at one view of data in not adequate. If you are going to add vizualization, in addition to data access, agencies need to allow the users to slice and dice the data and visualization. Other wise it is not really transparency, but instead spoon fed mono-culture.


5 Responses to The Marketing of Transparency: Beware Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

  1. Eric Hammonds says:

    1) Raw Data is expensive to compile and publish, especially for things like parcel and utility infrastructure maps. Many local GIS departments are minimally funded (if at all) with tax revenues, instead deriving funds from self-generated revenues (from selling stuff like raw data) and grants. In these cases, the primary function is to produce GIS data in support of other government agencies that need it (emergency services, tax collection, etc). For them to put up a crappy Java applet visualization tool for the public is gravy. For them to publish raw data is to kill their revenue stream. All of this is presuming that the government owns the data; many times, the local government is merely licensing private data in order to provide a crappy java viewer to the public.

    When taxpayers are fully funding government GIS, then the taxpayer has paid for the raw data and it probably should be made available for free. If the raw data costs thousands of dollars to compile and maintain, and the government can only scratch up a fraction of the cost, then let the commercial consumers of that data pay for it.

    2) The most demanded format for raw GIS data is the shapefile. Love it or hate it (I’m not a particularly big fan), that’s what the majority wants (for now). The kicker is you don’t need ESRI software to read a shapefile; there are open source shapefile tools available, so you can convert the data to whatever format works for you (open or not).

    3) See 1). Just because the government owns the data doesn’t mean the taxpayer paid for it. Until, etc. is online and significantly complete, someone will have to pay for it. The data license will reflect this.

    4) Users should be able to dictate what gets put on their Whopper, too. And they can, they just have to pay for the raw data and for processing time used on the burger server.

  2. Sean Gillies says:

    Cynical marketing (whether it’s “transparency” or “web 2.0″ or “SOA” or “REST”) by vendors and their media sock-puppets is the real problem. “Gov’t shouldn’t build software” doesn’t follow (though I tend to agree with you).

  3. Sean Gorman says:

    Hi Eric -

    Thanks for the comments and I agree there are large differences between the federal government and local government. My comments are largely pointed at the federal government where there has been the most conversation around transparency.

    Although many examples on the mapping side of things revolve around local government. My point is simply when government funds the creation of data, that data should be made easily available to the public. If the government purchases data from a third party then, sure, it should not be made available. It breaks the license for the data.

    I do think cost recovery models are incredibly short sighted. Data is a public good and rationing it will severely hamper the economic multipliers it can create. Thus decreasing the tax benefits that would flow back to the government.

    In my opinion the government should not be in the business of trying to sell things to generate revenue. The market should sell things and the government should tax the proceeds to better supply public goods that the market will under invest in like infrastructure, education etc. When the government sells things it is inherently anti-competitive because there are monopolistic issues – only one source.

    Without droning on like a staid academic – this only works if local governments have funding, so they don’t have to sell data. I disagree that it has to be expensive and you can always start with low laying fruit that is easy to make accessible online.

    It can definitely be done. Several cities have launched open data initiatives including geo – Washington DC and San Francisco being the two biggest.

    Sure you can keep creating crummy java applets and charging for the Whopper, but no one is going to turn up at your restaurant. Just imagine what you would get at a state run fast food restaurant. So, make the raw ingredients available to the market and let them create compelling products with it. EveryBlock is a great example of how nice the restaurant can be and how many people will turn up. So many it was bought by MSNBC and is getting more investment and scaling.

    That is my point, Sean, with Govt. not building software. Whether they hire a beltway bandit to do it or try it on their own. Folks like EveryBlock are always going to do a better job.

    If you keep the status quo folks like EveryBlock never get to play because it is all wired up by local connections and lobbyists, so the same bandits get the contract every year. If you open the data up then you can have real innovation happen.

    I’m sure it is Sisyphean ranting on my part, but have to hope if you say it and demonstrate it enough times change will slowly begin to occur.


  4. personne says:

    Ultimately there’s not much difference between “crummy Java applets” and the Fortius Flash application. Modern Java is fast and there are some great open source tools using Java. However the real open Web is based on HTML (aided by Javascript), with newer faster browsers addressing the speed problems.

  5. Sean Gorman says:

    Yes there are crappy Flash apps that government contractors build as well as crappy Java apps as well as crappy HTML javascript apps. The point is not what flavor of technology you choose, but the soundness of what you build with it (user interface, work flow, scalability, openness etc.).

    I’m looking forward to the day when HTML 5 + canvas allows you to render tens of thousands of geometries on a map, and all the browsers support it. I’d be ecstatic if IE6 fell off a cliff and died a miserable death. Till then we’ll stick with Flash because it is what works for us and our customer set. To each their own as long as it is not wasting taxpayer money with ill conceived technology deployments.