Can DC become an 'epicenter of open data' again? - Technical.ly DC

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Jan. 14, 2016 12:56 pm

Can DC become an ‘epicenter of open data’ again?

You can now comment on the new Draft Open Data Policy, a document that lives on the revamped Drafts.dc.gov site. It's one of several recent tech moves to open up D.C. government.

D.C. government wants your feedback on legislation before it becomes law.

(Photo by Flickr user Woody Hibbard, used under a Creative Commons license)

Matt Bailey admits that he doesn’t know everything about the history of open data in D.C., but here’s the general narrative: At one point, the District was a global leader in open gov. Now, not so much.

“D.C. was a one-time epicenter of open data, but then in recent years momentum got lost,” Bailey said. Now, D.C. government is trying to regain that momentum.

In the span of the past couple days, Bailey and his team at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) have released a Draft Open Data Policy and revamped D.C.’s Madison legislative collaboration platform as a place to host the draft policy (more on that later).

Mayor Muriel Bowser, for her part, announced her pick for a new city CTO to oversee the new open data policies and revived the DC Open Government Advisory Group — a forum for feedback from industry leaders on how to better publish and use open data that was begun under former mayor Vincent C. Gray.

(Oh, and you might remember that just last week the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development released an open-source Economic Intelligence Dashboard.)

That’s a lot of focus on transparency in a short amount of time, and there is more to say about many of these developments. For now, we’re focusing on the Draft Open Data Policy, and the platform on which it has made it’s debut.

Let’s start with the latter.

The site is called Drafts.dc.gov. It’s a partnership between the DC Council, the Executive Office of the Mayor, the OCTO Technology Innovation Program and The OpenGov Foundation — this last organization providing the platform which, yes, is where Madison comes in.

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Madison is a creation of the OpenGov Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “building a 21st century legislature.” Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, told Technical.ly that Madison is just one part of this goal. In general, the OpenGov Foundation wants us to move beyond paper-based decision making and use technology to improve the entire government workflow.

Madison itself specifically improves that part of the government workflow that is a call-and-response between lawmakers and interested parties. It allows citizens to comment on draft legislation, and legislators to easily collect those comments. It makes interaction transparent and (relatively) easy.

Practically, it works like this:

You sign up, create a username, and then search the site for a given piece of draft legislation (you can search by keyword, sponsor, etc.). Once in the draft legislation you can annotate the document, make comments and, with a single click, support or oppose the piece of legislation. Any action on the visitors part generates a notification for the sponsor of the bill.

According to creators, the site “will provide sponsors with valuable feedback on how residents feel about their proposals, and they may even choose to incorporate suggested edits straight into their documents.”

This is not the first time Madison has been used to get D.C. resident feedback on proposed legislation. Councilmember at-large David Grosso collaborated with the OpenGov Foundation to launch a version back in 2014. Kraft is excited about D.C.’s expanded use of Madison, and reflects that Bailey and team worked “literally at the speed of light for government” to get the project off the ground. This, he said, is a testament to the smart, talented technologists in place in D.C. gov.

Sign on to Drafts.dc.gov today, and you’ll find the Draft Open Data Policy text (along with a few other pieces of legislation left over from previous use of Madison in D.C.). This first document is the piece of work that Bailey and team hope, with appropriate edits, will soon become a Mayoral order. Residents are encouraged to leave their comments and concerns in the document before Feb. 15.

Ready to get down into the depths of policy and share your opinion on open data? This is a cool opportunity to do so, and there are already around 100 “collaborators” taking the government up on their offer.

What’s still unknown is whether and how the lawmakers themselves will interact with the collaborators — aside from the automatically generated notifications, of course. Will D.C. government really incorporate suggested edits? Is this just an empty embrace of “transparency”? We’ll have to wait to find out.

There’s also the broad philosophical question of the government’s responsibility to encourage or aid interaction with this material versus just allowing interaction. Should the government be tasked with ensuring that there are more than just 100  citizen collaborators on this open data policy? Or does that responsibility fall to the people themselves?

Granted, no piece technology can force thoughtful interaction from either party. Kraft argues that most elected representatives are already intent on talking with their constituents, and the collaborative platform of Drafts.dc.gov gives them an easier way to do so. It also allows all parties to the conversation to easily track comments and responses — citizens can then hold lawmakers responsible for not responding where and if they see fit.

Bailey said he views the Draft Open Data Policy posting on Drafts.dc.gov as a kind of pilot for how the government will use the platform in the future. So go check it out, see what D.C. gov is cooking up on open data and help keep the momentum going.

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Tajha Chappellet-Lanier

Tajha Chappellet-Lanier is the lead reporter for Technical.ly DC. The California native previously worked for NPR and the editorial board at USA Today. She can talk travel plans all day, and has strong opinions on the best doughnut in D.C.

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