What the Open Government Directive Means for open source

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On the heels of the Open Government Memo of January 21st, 2009, the Obama Administration has issued the Open Government Directive. The Directive tells agencies what they must do to meet the expectations set by the Memo. The directive names many deadlines for agency compliance, most of them around reducing FOIA backlogs and increasing the amount of agency data released to the public. This isn't surprising, since the Memo names transparency, collaboration, and participation as the guiding principles. Transparency is the easiest to articulate and implement -- just get the data out there in a useful form. Josh Tauberer's Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for "Open Government Data" is an excellent handbook for doing this. If you want to track agencies' progress, the Sunlight Labs folks have produced the outstanding Open Watcher. What's most interesting to me, and my friends at Open Source for America, though, are the more ambiguous orders. Although the Directive does not use the phrase 'open source software' at all, many of the principles and methodologies described are obvious references to open source. Many of these orders stand out as opportunities for open source developers, in the public and private sector, to demonstrate how our development model can help the Administration also make good on the last two principles: collaboration and participation. As Macon Phillips, the White House New Media Director said, "Open Source is... the best form of civic participation." Let's take a look at the deadlines, helpfully produced by Daniel Schuman at the Sunlight Foundation.

45 days — January 22, 2010

“Each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets and register those data sets via Data.gov” (p.2)

This is a wonderful opportunity for open source developers to demonstrate the power of citizen participation through software. The Administration has taken a great risk by pushing this data to the public. There are all kinds of reasons to not do it: privacy concerns, security issues, and the risk-averse culture in most of these organizations. Despite the instructions to be careful with citizens' privacy, and the reminder to be sensitive to security issues, there's still a chance that something could go wrong -- plenty of reason to not follow through with this exercise. We need to help the Administration prove that this was a worthwhile cause. Just as we showed the power of citizen programmers in Apps for Democracy and Apps for America, we need to take these data sets and make them useful to the American public.

“The Deputy Director for Management at OMB, the Federal Chief Information Officer, and the Federal Chief Technology Officer will establish a working group that focuses on transparency, accountability, participation, and collaboration within the Federal Government. This group, with senior level representation from program and management offices throughout the Government, will serve several critical functions, including:

  • Providing a forum to share best practices on innovative ideas to promote transparency, including system and process solutions for information collection, aggregation, validation, and dissemination;
  • Coordinating efforts to implement existing mandates for Federal spending transparency, including the Federal Funding Accountability Transparency Act and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act; and
  • Providing a forum to share best practices on innovative ideas to promote participation and collaboration, including how to experiment with new technologies, take advantage of the expertise and insight of people both inside and outside the Federal Government, and form high-impact collaborations with researchers, the private sector, and civil society.” (p.5)

Now here's a working group I would like to speak with very much. If you read the language of the third subsection, it's amazing how many words you have to use to not say the words "open source": experiment with new technologies, using expertise inside and outside the government, high-impact collaborations with many communities of use... they're all but begging to create open source software projects to support the release of this government data. In this "forum for best practices" on open data initiatives, you can imagine how useful a recommendation of open source software might be. You can even imagine the working group recommending government open source projects to help handle data that may be in strange government-specific formats.

60 days — February 6, 2010

“Each agency shall create an Open Government Webpage located at http://www.[agency].gov/open to serve as the gateway for agency activities related to the Open Government Directive” (p.2)

“The Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer shall create an Open Government Dashboard on www.whitehouse.gov/open. The Open Government Dashboard will make available each agency’s Open Government Plan, together with aggregate statistics and visualizations designed to provide an assessment of the state of open government in the Executive Branch and progress over time toward meeting the deadlines for action outlined in this Directive.” (p.5)

Of course, if an agency is writing new software to support these new "/open" areas, I'd like to see that software made available under a open license. If there are any clever data analysis or visualization tools, those should be licensed as open source software, as well. That way, citizens would have the opportunity to help the agency with their own disclosures, and agencies could more easily share tools with each other.

90 days — March 8, 2010

“The Deputy Director for Management at OMB will issue, through separate guidance or as part of any planned comprehensive management guidance, a framework for how agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions to improving open government.” (p.5)

This is a strangely oblique reference to Vivek Kundra's Apps for Democracy project when he was CTO in Washington, DC, and the national-scale follow-on, Apps for America. Both of these contests asked that submissions be provided under OSI-approved licenses. This is important to keep these projects going. If contestant's software is under a proprietary license, there is no momentum behind the contest, since nobody can contribute to it after the fact. You might as well hold no contest at all, and instead just bid the work out to a contractor.

120 days — April 7, 2010

“Each agency shall develop and publish on its Open Government Webpage an Open Government Plan that will describe how it will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities. Additional details on the required content of this plan are attached. Each agency’s plan shall be updated every two years.” (p.4)

I would hope very much that these plans for additional public participation and collaboration include invitations to open source developers who would like to help an agency build tools that make them function more transparently and efficiently.

“The Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), in consultation with the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer, will review existing OMB policies, such as Paperwork Reduction Act guidance and privacy guidance, to identify impediments to open government and to the use of new technologies and, where necessary, issue clarifying guidance and/or propose revisions to such policies, to promote greater openness in government.” (p.6)

I hope that this review would include an examination of FACA implementation guidelines, which is understood by many to prevent open source developers from directly participating with some Federal agencies, for fear of having offered the explicitly prohibited "volunteer help". We believe this isn't the case, and it would be great if OIRA published some clarifying language. If they were to provide an interpretation of OMB Circular 130-A that ensured it was safe for agencies to create open source software without running afoul of procurement regulations, that would be wonderful. So here's a tremendous opportunity for the open source community. We have been given an early Christmas gift: a pretty clear path for more open source software and (perhaps more importantly) more government-sponsored open source projects inside each agency. A hearty thanks the Heather West of CDT for her invaluable comments.

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