Posts about Open Government
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.
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-dateWhat 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?
— the council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we'll fix these problems too.
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.
There's a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can't download a copy.
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 laws
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 contractor
The contractor publishes a few different versions of the "compiled law," each of which with restrictions:
- The online portal has a "browsewrap" restriction against copying in full.
- The CD they publish has a "clickwrap" restriction against copying at all.
- Even the printed version has a registered copyright by the Council itself.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Montgomery County Parks Department has spent more than $100,000 on historical and archaeological consultants to do research at the Josiah Henson Site (formerly known as "Uncle Tom's Cabin"). Except for the archaeology reports, you can read all of the consultants' work at the park's website. If you want to read about the archaeology done at the site, you are out of luck.
Despite the fact that Montgomery County Parks staff have posted detailed maps showing the locations of past and proposed archaeological investigations at the park, Parks staff and the Parks Department general counsel refuse to release the reports prepared by consultant John Milner Associates, Inc.
Parks Department staff claim that they cannot release the reports because they contain sensitive information. It is a legitimate claim in many cases: archaeologists don't want to reveal exact locational information because relic hunters and looters may then use the information to damage fragile archaeological resources and steal artifacts for sale on the open market or for private collections.
I requested copies of the archaeological reports because I am interested in writing on the roles folklore and history have played in our understanding of the site. This is something I've written about on my blog and discussed with media outlets and in a public radio interview.
If I were just an ordinary citizen asking for copies of research reports paid for by public funds, the county would have some basis for denying my request to ensure the protection of the archaeological resources. But I'm not just an ordinary citizen. In addition to being a professional historian, I also am a trained professional archaeologist and for business purposes for more than 6 years I was certified as a Registered Professional Archaeologist.
So what does that mean? It means that my credentials meet and exceed the Secretary of the Interior's Professional Qualifications Standards in archaeology and that I have been determined by various state historic preservation offices throughout the United States, including Maryland, to be qualified to practice as a professional archaeologist.
But when I requested copies of the archaeology reports from the Montgomery County Parks Department, I received this reply from Parks Department planner Rachel Newhouse:
M-NCPPC complies with state and federal laws regarding the disclosure of sensitive archaeological information. Researchers may contact the Maryland Historical Trust's Archaeological Library to request archaeological information.My request was forwarded to associate general counsel Derrick Rogers. He replied, "Your request for access to Josiah Henson Park archaeological reports is denied. These reports are not available to the public." Rogers then wrote,
As noted in earlier responses to you from Commission staff and the Office of the General Counsel, your request is covered by the MPIA (Maryland Public Information Act). Under Maryland Access to Public Records Act (State Government Article, 10-618(g), Annotated Code of Maryland), the reports in question contain site specific information of a historic property and may be denied by the custodian of those records.If Montgomery County were interested in protecting sensitive archaeological information, then I doubt county staff would have posted detailed maps, like the one shown below on their website, that show where archaeological resources are located in the park property.
This decision by Commission staff complies with state and federal laws regarding the disclosure of sensitive archaeological information and consulted with the Maryland Historic Trust regarding your request.
Furthermore, renderings for future park development also contain information on past and future archaeological investigations. Anyone with a shovel and metal detector I wonder how well Montgomery County's tax dollars are being spent by the Parks Department in its ongoing efforts to develop the park and to manage the public narrative about the county's expensive mistakes surrounding the property's purchase. The Parks Department's embargo of the archaeology reports lends new meaning to the phrase "money pit."
I wonder how well Montgomery County's tax dollars are being spent by the Parks Department in its ongoing efforts to develop the park and to manage the public narrative about the county's expensive mistakes surrounding the property's purchase. The Parks Department's embargo of the archaeology reports lends new meaning to the phrase "money pit."
When WMATA contracted with a consultant to assess its elevator and escalator maintenance, I asked for a copy of the report and was rebuffed. The Washington Post was as well. We were both given the PowerPoint summary of the report that WMATA prepared for its Board.
Yesterday, local blog Unsuck DC Metro got its hands on a copy of the report. Rather than reading the report closely and reporting its analysis, this anti-Metro blog saw warnings in the report about brake issues and drew some damning conclusions.
Unsuck DC Metro reported that WMATA knew about, and ignored, problems that caused the October 30th escalator brake failure at L'Enfant Plaza that injured several people. This prompted much Metro bashing and a PR nightmare for Metro.
The reality, however, is that WMATA didn't ignore brake warnings. Their mistakes were to keep the report a secret, and to continually avoid a real prioritization of safety fixes.
As WMATA's press relations made clear in the comment thread, Metro announced on Oct. 14th that it would test the brake issues identified by the consultant in November.
This showcases the folly of WMATA's consistent practice of refusing to divulge consultant reports that are paid for with taxpayer money, and providing the public PowerPoint summaries instead. This practice creates the appearance of a cover-up, and undermines credible bloggers and journalists who try to produce thorough and fair accounts of Metro activities.
If WMATA had released the report when Ann Scott Tyson of the Post and I asked for it, yesterday's flare-up wouldn't have happened. Instead, Greater Greater Washington would have provided a fair and thorough assessment of the report.
Now that we have it, how is that report?
Quite simply, the escalator report is not well done. It doesn't specify the specific goal of the audit, and ends up being a grab-bag of several findings, many positive and many negative.
It's understandable, as a result, why the escalator issues didn't make it into Sarles' PowerPoint summary of the report. If the brake issues were a real concern to the consultant, the report certainly doesn't reflect that. They are buried between recommendations for better housekeeping and for better training in the Maintenance Management System.
Which of the negative findings contribute to downtime? Which contribute to risk of injury? What priority should be placed on addressing which findings given their relative contributions to downtime or risk of injury? None of these questions are remotely answered in the report.
As we said when the audit was completed, Sarles should be able to report to the Board something like this:
We're at 90% now. We've found these internal issues and will fix them. These contribute to (say) 20% of downtime so that will get us to 92%. If we allocate some of our capital dollars to escalator repair, we can get to (say) 96% by addressing additional causes of 40% of downtime.But this report doesn't enable Sarles to say anything like this.
This gets to the heart of the real problems facing Metro. As we have repeated on several occasions, Metro's fundamental flaw in both maintenance and safety is its inability to proactively prioritize action items based on how much an issue contributes to downtime or risk of injury.
Instead, Metro creates grab-bags of good ideas, pursues them in no particular order, and then when a major incident occurs reactively spends mountains of money addressing the immediate causes of that incident. Metro is doing the same here, by now testing the brakes on every escalator in the system.
The recommendations in Vital Signs, the NTSB recommendations and the elevator/escalator recommendations in this report are all unprioritized grab-bags of good, yet unvalidated, ideas for improving performance and safety.
If this feels like less of a smoking gun than the negligence that Unsuck DC Metro is claiming, then email your WMATA Board member asking them if they know what the top 10 causes of downtime and injury are in Metro's system. They won't know.
That's a smoking gun. And it also gets to the real problem, which is what we should be trying to do as bloggers.
I would hope that this prompts Metro to start releasing reports that are procured with taxpayer dollars. They can start with the Corporate Executive Board survey of Metro workers regarding the safety culture and the Booz Allen Hamilton assessment of the skills needed at Metro to run a hazard management system.
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