Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Open Government

Government


Want more open government? Make data more open

Though many citizens understand the basic political process, it is often difficult to figure out how specific political decisions are made. Open data can make it easier to participate in local government simply by providing information.


Photo by justgrimes on Flickr.

Open data gives citizens access to information that can be used to improve government services and provide greater transparency. The underlying confusion and skepticism many people feel about government has given way to a nationwide open data movement, particularly here in DC. The variety of data tools available in the DC area demonstrates what is possible through open data.

There are a number of key websites that help local residents learn about and get engaged in their communities. But there are a few ways that local governments could further improve access to data.

Track the performance of DC agencies

At track.dc.gov, anyone can go online to track the performance of various agencies and access information about budgets, spending, news, and performance indicators. The website covers a number of agencies including the Commission on Arts & Humanities, the Board of Ethics & Government Accountability, Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department of Behavioral Health.

The site can be used as a tool for any citizen who wants to find out how the government is using public money. It serves as an additional point of financial oversight and allows each resident to become a government watchdog. Easy access to this plethora of information helps citizens to be informed of the inner workings of government.

Many agencies try to measure their performance internally. With this site, everyday people will not only gain a better understanding of where tax money is allocated, but do their own performance review by looking at how it is being spent, and where the gaps are.

See DC by the numbers

Those interested in city operational data can visit data.dc.gov to see figures for crime incidents, purchase orders, building permits, and housing code enforcement. In order to increase transparency, the city has published 493 data sets from various agencies that use city finances.


DC provided the data for this map of building permits. Image from Map Attacks.

This website has a massive amount of information and makes it easily accessible. Without online access, anyone looking for this information would have to search through government archives, but with this tool, it's right at your fingertips.

Leveraging this information in a useful way requires some research and a bit of creativity, but the possibilities are endless for involved citizens. It becomes a matter of education so the public knows this information is available to them. Many people have used this data to create interesting visualizations of trends around the city, such as this map of every building permit in DC.

Through open data tools like this one, people can search through records and recognize problem areas that are growing worse or areas that have improved. But the most important step is encouraging everyday citizens and empowering them to take control of the information available to them, and in doing so, improve their neighborhoods and the community at large.

See how the public interacts with DC agencies

Though DC has made great strides towards making information available, there is still room for improvement. Sites like data.dc.gov and track.dc.gov are both tools that use information supplied by the government. As a result, it's a very one-sided solution to the open data dilemma.


Image from grade.dc.gov.

The other important piece to open data is allowing citizens to communicate feedback to government agencies and evaluate their performance. In this vein, sites like grade.dc.gov collect feedback about particular agencies from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The information is then analyzed and used to assign the agency a monthly letter grade based on how good or bad the reviews were. The results are two-fold: citizens have an avenue to report frustrating behavior, and agencies are made aware of problems.

Pushing open data even further

While the open data movement has made progress in DC, there is much more to be done. The government needs to make information more accessible and easier to sort through.

There also needs to be a greater emphasis on collaboration. The agencies must engage the people they are working for in order to figure out what changes need to be made. After that, it's up to citizens to educate themselves and use open data as a tool to hold the government more accountable.

Government


Social media kills bad policy against photographing permits

DC permit officials wouldn't let people take photos of building applications. Instead, people had to wait several days and pay to have copies made. But after several people including staff for Councilmember David Grosso reached out to officials through Twitter, this policy is no more.


Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

In May, I learned that the owners of a house across the street in Trinidad were going to add a pop-up. I wanted to see some details of their plans. Matt Ashburn offered (via Twitter) to go on his lunch break to look at the plans.

But Eric Fidler warned us that DCRA doesn't allow people to take photos of plans. Helder Gil, DCRA's Legislative and Public Affairs officer, said that he should be able to. Gil gave Matt the name of the head of the permit division, just in case a problem cropped up.

At DCRA, Matt asked an employee at the file room to see the plans and permit application for the house. The employee asked him to sign in with his name, addresses of concern, and documents he'd like to view, but said he couldn't see the plans that day. "If I [pulled plans immediately for someone in the office], I'd be working all day," she said.

Matt had to fill out another form with his name, phone number, and the permit numbers, and wait for a phone call in 1-3 days telling him when he could come back. In the meantime, he could see the permit application.

But when he tried to take a photo of it with his phone, he was told he wasn't allowed to take photos. Instead, he could pay the employee to make copies. "That's the policy. No photos of the paperwork," she insisted.

When Matt protested, the employee eventually offered to make free copies of the application to get rid of him. But then, the records manager, a Mr. Mason, refused.

Mason confirmed that all these records are public documents and that the public is allowed to view and hold them, but not to photograph them. "What a wonderful country we live in," he told Matt. Matt would still have to buy copies of the application from DCRA and copies of the plans from Blueboy Printing, a private print shop, because DCRA can't copy large pages itself.

Matt said he just wanted to take a quick photo to avoid the hassle. "That's just how it is," Mr. Mason replied.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Aaron Pritchard, Councilmember Grosso's chief of staff, saw our tweets about the issue and sought clarification from DCRA.

Gil jumped in. He made it clear that the director of DCRA was unhappy with the situation, and had asked the permit records department to stop enforcing it. Citizens could now take photos of permits, and that was that.

A few weeks later, I tried it for myself. I went to the permit office one Friday and asked to see the plans for the same house. Since the plans were off-site, I had to ask them to pull the plans, and an employee told me I could call back on Tuesday to see if they were available. When I did, I learned that I could come in the next day to see the plans. (They weren't, as it turned out, and I had to come back twice before they were finally available.)

The same employee strongly encouraged me to take photos if I wanted to have a record. Thankfully, that part of the policy worked the way it should.

As for that pop-up, here's what it will look like:

It appears that the new owners will replace one of the second-floor windows with a door, while the porch roof will become a deck. The plans don't specifically say what materials they will use for the addition, but it appears that it will be something like vinyl siding, as opposed to brick like the rest of the house.

Since my neighborhood isn't designated as a historic district, there's no process that controls the materials or design of building additions in my neighborhood, except that they have to meet zoning. But we were able to change one problematic city policy with help from social media.

Government


A copy of DC's laws is now free and open

After open data advocates pointed out how ridiculous it is that private companies have a copyright on the only publicly-available versions of DC's laws, DC Council General Counsel David Zvenyach helped make a public domain version and posted it online.


Photo from BoingBoing.

Tom MacWright explained the problem last month. DC, like many governments, contracts with a company (in this case LexisNexis) to compile all of the laws and keep them updated as they change. They post the laws online, but with licenses that restrict your rights to reuse the information, even though it's the public law.

Rather than ignoring the problem or issuing silly legal threats against people who were digitizing the code without permission, Zvenyach worked with the advocates to create a version of the code free of these restrictions.

Mike Masnick writes at TechDirt:

Part of the issue was that the only digital copy of the code that they had was the one given to them by West, and it contained a variety of extraneous information that was West's IP, including West logos on each section of the law (representing many thousands of copies). Zvenyach had Joshua Tauberer come by and spend a day removing every bit of West IP from the document and quickly releasing a downloadable copy of the DC Code with a CC0 public domain license.
Tom MacWright notes that this is just one step:
There are a few things that this isn't: it isn't the official copy of the code, and lawyers would be ill-advised to cite it alone. It isn't up-to-datethe council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we'll fix these problems too.
What can people do with an open source set of DC laws? We can think of a lot of things, but the best part is when people do things we don't think of. Some commenters on MacWright's post wondered why this matters; can't you just find the code on the existing website? Yes, you can't link directly to a part of the code, and can only download pieces in Microsoft Word, but so what?

So what is all the ways someone could build better tools to make it easier to find the laws. Someone already made a tool that's for some purposes better than the official site. Or people could write automated programs to compare the laws on some topics, like yielding to pedestrians, to those in other states. (Hey, that would be a great idea! Has someone done that yet?)

Do you have ideas or want to implement some? MacWright is organizing a hackathon on Sunday. If you build something neat with the code, let us know and we'll show it off here.

Government


DC's laws aren't yours

There's a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can't download a copy.


Photo by PublicResource.org on Flickr.

Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it's not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.

It also means that it's hard to discuss legal matters online, since you can't link to specific lawsthis Salon.com article about David Gregory has had a broken link to the law in question since 40 minutes after it was posted, months ago.

How the law became scarce

How did this happen? It's a tricky answer of access, ownership, and contracts.

The DC Council writes and publishes bills, which are additions and subtractions to the law itself. The law is compiled by a contractorpreviously WestLaw, now LexisNexis. So the contractor holds a complete copy of the law.

The contractor publishes a few different versions of the "compiled law," each of which with restrictions:

Unfortunately, courts have upheld these types of restrictions in the CD and website Terms of Service. They get further support from the wire fraud statute, which prosecutors used in the Aaron Swartz case to escalate charges to felonies. And in all of these versions, the contractor tries to claim copyright through compilation copyright and additional content like citations and prefaces.

In the face of these strong guards against freeing the law, the most reasonable avenue for creating a freely-accessible copy is buying and scanning the printed copies, which is exactly what some citizens are starting to do.

Why this matters

This has effects in many places. Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can't reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions. Of course, when laws go out of date, these copy and pasted guides stop working.

The goal of better educating the police about laws (like the rules of the road for bicyclists) is harder. Police can't have an offline copy of the law for quick access in the field, and the online version is near-useless on smartphones.

It's also locking the DC Council into using a contractor for this purpose. DC's contracts with WestLaw and LexisNexis aren't strong enough to force the contractors to provide them with a copyright-cleaned version, so the council itself doesn't have a compiled copy of the law that they can publish by themselves if they want to take this in-house.

What's Next

This is a hard problem to unwrap and fix, and there are multiple efforts afoot.

Waldo Jaquith is building The State Decoded, an open-source system for storing and displaying state codes. It's already deployed with Virginia's laws. Public Resource.org is working on the long task of scanning and digitizing the print edition. And a group of residents are encouraging the council to write a better contract than the current one with LexisNexis, which doesn't provide for copyright-free copies.

Meanwhile, it'll be months or years until it's possible to download DC's laws onto your iPhone and clarify whether it is, indeed, legal to bike on a sidewalk (sometimes) or drink in public space (never).

Government


Office of Zoning: We don't want emails, they might be fake

If you want to express an opinion to your councilmember, you can send an email. But if you want to tell the DC Zoning Commission what you think of a development proposal, you have to print out a letter on paper, sign it, then scan it back in, or send them a physical letter.


Photo by Phil Romans on Flickr.

This makes it hard for many residents to participate in the forum where the city's land use decisions get made. Not everyone has a scanner handy. It takes a fair amount of time and materials to mail a letter. There seems to be little reason not to let people send an email, with comments in the text, their name and address at the bottom.

I raised this issue this morning at an oversight hearing for the Office of Zoning. DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson asked Office of Zoning director Sara Bardin for the reason. This rule came about, she said, because in one case about 10 years ago, someone sent an email which falsified the name.

Therefore, she said, they decided to require a signature on all letters. Otherwise, "we can't authenticate it should somebody come back later" and say the testimony is false.

Mendelson seemed skeptical. "It might be worth looking at that some more," he said. He pointed out that if someone brings a petition signed by a number of residents, OZ doesn't necessarily authenticate them either.

Bardin never explained why it is so important to authenticate each piece of testimony. The Zoning Commission can read letters from people with and without a wiggly line at the bottom, and give each the weight members think it deserves. If they want to give more credit to letters with an ink design at the bottom, fine, but what's the harm in accepting the letters? For that matter, did this one email 10 years ago cause great harm in a zoning case? It seems unlikely.

Mendelson asked me whether allowing emailed comments would encourage people to create online petitions. He pointed out that he had received over 500 emails on an issue last year (he didn't specify, but it could have been Uber). It's easier, he said, to just click on a petition, and does that mean as much?

I replied that while getting a lot of form emails might not show as strong a depth of passion as when people write individual letters or even come to testify at a hearing, it's important information. Councilmembers could know that a lot of people cared enough about Uber, or yoga taxes, or other issues like those to send an email.

Perhaps making it hard for people to give their input might have an upside from the staff's point of view; they have to deal with fewer documents, and the commissioners have to read a shorter record. But it also deprives many residents of a voice in this process.

Hopefully Bardin will heed Mendelson's gentle suggestion and reevalute this policy. In the meantime, please support this effort by writing your comments in cuneiform on a clay tablet, firing the tablet, plating it in bronze, and shipping the resulting plaque to Zoning Commission for the District of Columbia, 441 4th Street, NW, Room 200-South, Washington, DC 20001.

Government


Make ANC financial reports available online

The chairman of ANC 5B stole about $30,000 from the ANC last year. DC agencies struggle to provide enough oversight of dysfunctional ANCs. The District can start to increase accountability and transparency by making ANC financial reports available online.


Photo by mynameisharsha on Flickr.

ANCs must provide the DC Auditor with quarterly financial reports. The DC Auditor is responsible for auditing the financial information, maintaining a database of the information, and ensuring that the reports are in compliance.

It would be a small step to also make this information readily available to the public. The press and interested members of the public could then monitor the ANC financial reports and identify mistakes, omissions, and inconsistencies that may have been missed.

Under the current system, the DC government is not providing the resources required for adequate oversight. The size and scope of the ANC system outweighs the resources dedicated to overseeing it. The DC Auditor has many other responsibilities and the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, charged with administrating ANCs, only has two full-time staff members.

With financial information effectively hidden from the public, it takes extremely diligent individuals significant effort and time to uncover improper or missing information. In September 2011, the Washington Times discovered that the DC auditor approved ANC financial reports that were missing basic information, proper signatures, or evidence of tax deductions. The Times also reported that the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions doesn't maintain records from the ANCs.

In the ANC 5B scandal, the DC Auditor initiated an audit after failing to receive financial reports for 3 consecutive quarters. The DC auditor currently posts a list detailing if and when ANCs submitted their financial reports.

If the database were available online, the public could have more easily and quickly found out about the DC Auditor's and the ANCs' failings, without having to rely on intrepid reporters sifting through hidden data.

Making this database available online should not place an undue burden on individual ANCs or the DC Auditor. But it will allow the press and public to better scrutinize these elected officials. Knowing that their records are easily available to the public may also encourage ANCs to follow proper financial procedure.

The ANC system is due for change. Putting these documents online would be a small step in the right direction.

Government


No 2:00 am budget surprises please, Kwame Brown

DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown should release his final budget proposal at least 24 hours before the final vote scheduled for Wednesday, May 25. Greater Greater Washington has joined 40 organizations and individuals in a letter asking Chairman Brown to take this step toward greater transparency and accountability in the DC government.


Photo by dbking on Flickr.

Recent budgets haven't been released or even finished until a few hours before the final vote is scheduled. This is troublesome for the council members tasked with voting on the measure, as well as citizens affected by the details of the proposal.

Last-minute changes can cause outrage and consternation among DC residents, like last year's streetcar cuts which appeared at 2:00 am and were reversed the next day.

Will there be any surprise changes in this new budget which haven't gotten much public vetting? We don't know. Releasing the budget early will give stakeholders time to review and react to the proposal, and it will allow councilmembers to cast their votes with confidence.

Providing citizens and council members early access to the final budget proposal would be a concrete step towards greater transparency. Combined with his recent ethics reform proposal, releasing the budget early will show that Chairman Brown is willing to act to create a more open, ethical, and accountable city government.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote a letter to Chairman Brown urging him to release his final budget proposal at least 24 hours before the Council is scheduled to vote. Greater Greater Washington is happy to join over 40 other organizations and individuals in this important matter. We hope that Chairman Brown will consider the suggestion and avoid any 2 am surprises on Wednesday.

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