FOI Audit: Government Not Yet Open

Original post on (3/16/2010)

On Monday, the National Security Archive, an open government think tank, released the results of a government-wide Freedom of Information audit. For those following the Obama adminstration’s efforts at opening government, their findings may come as an eye-opener.

Despite what they applaud as a clean break from the practices of the previous administration, the National Security Archive found that only four of the many departments of the federal government have improved over previous years with respect to their releasing and sharing of government data. Furthermore, though the President has released numerous memos regarding the sharing of government data, only a minority of the departments have made meaningful improvements. Disturbingly, some of the oldest requests for government data are not as old as one or even two adminstrations: some requests for data from the National Archives and Records Administration are 18 years old.

Aside from the broadly negative findings, the National Security Archive’s report maintains an overall positive tone, indicating that one year after a change in policy may be too soon to judge the effectiveness of that policy change. Instead, the report urges greater leadership and pressure from within the administration and from the public. Indeed, at this time when politics blur the appropriate comprehension of actual facts, we can hardly afford to be kept in the dark. Sharing data is the only logical solution.

The solutions to public healthcare, proper management and distribution of energy technology, and every other meaningful policy depend on access to fundamentally raw, no-spin data so that we can draw our own conclusions. I stand by the belief that when citizens have access to real information, they will collectively make the best choices.


Open Gov Tracker

If open government and open data have the capacity to do the most good for the greatest number of people then Open Gov Tracker is the Open Gov movement’s heart rate monitor.

Open Gov Tracker displays real-time information on the ideas, votes, and comments that have gone into the federal government’s various open data project. It displays the input you the citizen and we the people have given to the various branches of government.  From here, one can access federal government branches and their universal platforms for sharing government data. This means that not only can you access the data, but  now you can see which branch is getting the most input.

The site also displays information on the branches receiving the least amount of input as well as those with the greatest amount of input. This allows those at the top to be recognized without forgetting those at the bottom.

Dividing the input into ideas, votes, and comments has an added benefit: we get to see who really is generating good ideas, and what others really think about those ideas. The votes, like most social websites, allow a basic ranking of the ideas input by others. The comments section allows one to track the debate in real time. Additionally, the design (by IdeaScale) enables you to see if there is a lack of ideas as compared to comments or votes (highly informative).

So let’s choose a branch as an example. I am a scientist, so naturally the NSF is a branch which concerns me. If I scroll down the list to the NSF, I can see that so far (10:34 PM EST 2/23/2010) 13 authors have contributed 19 ideas, generated 65 votes, resulting in 14 comments. At the far right are two links, one to a twitter account (which I am now following) and one to the site’s open portal.

From the open portal, I can choose to sign in with my google account (convenient) and begin participating (this does not show up in buzz, but that would be a cool feature). Now, I can browse ideas, vote on them, and provide comments as I see fit. So I long in, propose an idea, participate in the discussion, and vote on other ideas. Real simple, it tool me 5 minutes to do all that.

The idea that the federal government is actually paying attention speaks to the massive changes the internet is affecting on societies. With any luck, these projects may help to truly ensure that gross inefficiencies are dealt with. If it makes it to state goverment level, let me know – I don’t ever want to stand in a 2 hour DMV line again.

New Theme – Neutra

I have got to give a shout-out to maxxu who designed the Neutra theme. It is simple and straightforward. I found it b/c of Noel’s post on WP.

Government 2.0 and Motivation

During my bachelor’s, I formed an organization based on the idea that undergrads could successfully do research in a laboratory. The result was a volunteer group of motivated, loyal individuals who independently researched their own projects and produced great results.

Since then, I have had limited success with similar attempts. I decided to figure out what it was that made the first organization succeed while others failed. The fundamental problem was motivation of the recruits.

As I considered motivation, I came to a realization that there is a distinct difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. We intuitively know that intrinsic motivators produce more internalizable and long-lasting goals than extrinsic motivators. Nevertheless, we have been tempted with money, promotion, etc, or threatened with loss of income in order to produce work.

For example, we know that giving someone a challenge to acheive a goal that they value actually produces better results than giving people money. Organizations may find that they get productive behavior with income-based incentives, but truly creative, innovative productivity arises out of internal drive. In fact, creativity is highly linked to finding inner meaning through work. These intrinsic incentives are truly powerful.

So what are the most basic intrinsic motivators?

The answer is autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

How did I come upon this magical triplet? Two words: Dan Pink. One place: TED talks.

In the foregoing movie, you will see a good-looking, ostensibly even-tempered Dan Pink wax emotional and even borderline furious as he tries to embed the principles of good motivation into the gushy grey matter between our ears.

Why is he trying so hard? Because we’ve been getting it wrong for so long. Since the dawn of civilization leaders have been attempting to use coercion as a means of enforcing their will. Even during the Enlightenment, some thinkers were still convinced that rule of law could not be maintained without external enforcement or incentives. What is being discoverd in economics, sociology, and psychology is that motivation can come from intrinsic meaningful sources and this requires no enforcement – just participation.

This is really at the core of Government 2.0. A centralized leviathan telling everyone what to do is unnecessary; rather, Gov 2.0 is a realization of open participation in government by the people and the effectiveness of small groups of skilled, passionate participants. The lesson for government is that people participate when they feel that they are free, are contributing needed skills, and are a part of something worthwhile.

Fundamentally, this means letting go of the reins and allowing people to do more or their own free will and choice. The function of the government in this light then is to provide training, standards, and a participatory framework. Such a framework would allow open communication and common trust so that citizens feel free to share and participate. If government can succeed in establishing this kind of infrastructure, the majority of the work is done. In this environment, participation becomes its own motivator.

Originally posted at:


So, I have not cross-posted several of my recent posts from I have simply been too busy/lazy/call-it-what-you-like.

So the next couple posts will be rapid-fire (I’ll leave a day’s space between each).

ad-hoc Friday #4: General Store

A place where you can find anything

A general store is a wonderful concept where a merchant would enable people to have items of nearly any kind shipped to a single location, convenient to a town square. The idea is simple: the postal service, parcel services, and general shipping would all come to the general store where the customer could freely shop and even order things from any supplier, provided the merchant had the catalogue.

Naturally, in this era of fascination with steampunk and other modern interpretations of Victorian/Edwardian culture, some of us are bound to get an idea like this buzzing in our heads. Add that to developments in New Urbanism culture, and one has to ask why are there so few general town markets?

The Social Benefit of Community Shopping

In all honesty, I have the privilege of being close to a corner market which supplies all my needs, is locally owned, and owned by people who are fantastic and even know my name. It shouldn’t be a novelty though.

With the advent of instantaneous communication and procurement of products from nearly anywhere, the internet age has a few limitations, mostly that are detrimental to the social aspects of person-to-person contact. So, how does one manage these impacts, use good technology, and still go to their corner market? I’m not completely sure, but I do have an idea:

Re-invent the General Store

The general store of the future would be stocked with all kinds of normal goods which you’d expect to find, and would even have a small warehouse full of “one of everything”, just in case someone needs it (all digitally catalogued and searchable online). This general store sets up an agreement with Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, Ponoko, and other online retailers, enabling them to have cheaper shipping by shipping in bulk to a central location. Then, you can choose a cheaper shipping option on any one of these sites so that the product you wish to purchase is available either immediately (in stock) or within a day or two (better than 3 to 5 business days).

The added benefit over heading to a big box chain is that these operations would be small, serving the needs of local communities, employing local people, and would enable you the customer to have a more intimate experience with the proprietor and even social opportunities as your neighbors also stop in to pick up their needs. Making this primarily a pedestrian-accessible business would also enhance the image of the community and the overall social atmosphere of the neighborhood in which it exists.

Open Source?

The big road block I have here is how to make this community-participation driven…

Perhaps the general store would have built in a coffee shop or library or bookstore or some other social infrastructure that would act as a platform for community idea sharing and involvement. Perhaps it could function as a co-op where use requires service in the running of day-to-day operations, or something like that. Another cool idea would be to enable in-kind trading, effectively reviving the concept of the trading-post. This would allow people to purchase goods of a specific intrinsic value with goods of another intrinsic value, etc, etc.

Now it’s your turn! If you have any ideas on how to improve the social aspects of trade and markets, send in a comment and get ideas flowing.

A cornucopia of experiences

The Expert Lab

Expert Labs founder Anil Dash. Credit: Scott Beale /

Expert Labs is a Web2.0/Governement2.0 hybrid headed by the internet expert Anil Dash. Started in November 2009, this AAAS-associated non-profit promises to become a major collaboration between experts in the academic world and policy makers.

This is a project that makes a lot of sense. The academic community, despite its hierarchical “old dude’s club” mentality, is fundamentally a shareable network. Brilliant minds have known for centuries that collaboration produces a great wealth of diverse, successful achievements.

Unfortunately, this ancient system has a built-in limit to its shareability since participation in the network requires a sufficiently large vocabulary as well as a sufficiently deep grasp of highly specialized knowledge.

Despite the inherent limit to participation, it was the academic community’s research ethic that has led to broad scale collaborations in recent years (ever heard of the human genome project? Just look at those author lists), and in fact, our Earth’s most shareable communications resource, the internet, was created by academics to share research with other academics.

As a molecular biologist myself, I recognize the problems that academia struggles with in sharing its knowledge with the community — I mean, who but us nerds understands this kind of technical, detail-oriented jargon?

It is no surprise to me that any academic dispute over the fine details of research (global warming, stem cells, etc.) could be sadly misconstrued by politicians and the public in general as an indication of deep contentions within specific fields. Education of the public is sorely deficient — but it is getting better.

Some may be tempted to think that scientists and academics are holding out – withholding information until it is too late, etc. But while professors tend to be a tinge megalomaniac (yes, many do have a god-knowledge complex), most want their research to be known broadly and understood deeply. The only way to do this is to increase public access to academics and deepen the level of their involvement in every aspect of public life possible.

Actually, many organizations have taken a cue and are hiring PhD’s fresh out of their dissertations. The result is that many of today’s business and policy decisions are made by highly informed by experts in their various fields. The result, hopefully, is that a research-driven expert decision occurs, and that the research ethic of experimentation and constant improvement becomes more ingrained in our society.

Unfortunately, most of the advice given to policy makers tends to be done on a limited scale with a few top researchers in small, closed-door meetings, lacking academic consensus. If progress is to be made in the use of and sharing of expert opinion, everyone who has expertise needs a chance to contribute.

Enter Expert Labs. Their idea is to provide Web2.0 tools to academics and experts which encourage open participation in informing policy makers about necessary facts to consider prior to making policy. Additionally, it functions as a sort of idea incubator, allowing experimentation of various new approaches and their more rapid implementation in public policy.

So how does it work?

First policy makers are faced with a problem — for example, a public demand for shareable/public healthcare that is affordable, high quality, and universal. Policy makers create a standardized, open call to action. Expert Labs then provides the academic community with the Web2.0/social media tools for participation.

Ideas flow, debate ensues, and consensus ideas emerge. The best consensus ideas win, and are rewarded further with grants and/or startup capital for an entrepreneurial/contract solution. Ideas are further researched and then finally put into action on a national level. The end of anonymous task groups, the rise of universal consensus.

At least, that’s what Dash is telling everyone. So far, the project is in its developmental stages and no official projects have been announced.

That being said, the potential of such a project really has the capacity to change the face of expert opinion in government. With clear consensus opinions on important topics, the public will have a renewed ability to understand the world of research. With this information, politicians will have to make much clearer stances on the scientific validity and rational strength of their positions.

Sharing is all about access — breaking down barriers. If the public can have greater access to consensus scientific opinion, I believe that many of the misunderstandings inherent in the public view of science and academia will slowly diminish.

Crossposted on