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.
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