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Monthly Archives: March 2010
Here is an interesting post regarding motivating people to act and its relationship to gaming.
The following is a letter I sent to member of the Colorado General Assembly regarding HB10-1036, which calls for school districts to publish financial data on-line. A good thing, but how the data is published in important. This issue is of importance in light of a recent Denver Post article on School District spending. The bill will be up for hearing on Thursday, March 11, 2010. The hearing start at 1:30 pm in Senate Committee Room 354 and the bill is the second item on the Senate Education committee’s calendar. You may listen to the hearing here.
My issue is with the fiscal analysis and the assumption that school will (or should?) publish the district financial data is PDF. I am not trying to pick on PDF, but rather with the PDF creation process. (As with many things, the problem is a user issue not a technology issue). Please read my letter and if you contact the committee members (list here) and the Senate sponsor, Senator Chris Romer.
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Dear Senator or Representative;
I am writing you today in support of HB10-1036, the Public School Financial Transparency Act. However, I would encourage the Colorado General Assembly to more explicitly recommend the use of open standards based technologies when publishing government data. This bill is a good step in furthering financial transparency and in increasing public accessibility to financial data. As the bill declares, all Coloradans have an interest in knowing how moneys are being expended in the pursuit of quality public education. A critical issue to public accessibility to financial data is how the data is published on the Web. The fiscal note to HB10-1036 states that “it is assumed that financial documents can be electronically converted to portable document format (PDF) . . . and posted to online at minimal cost.” This statement is correct in both respects. There is no doubt that providing PDF versions of these documents on-line would be a step in the right direction and would give citizens access to information that would not be easily accessible today. Furthermore, PDF can be one of the most flexible human-readable electronic formats invented and can provide one of the richest possible electronic formats ever devised in terms of capabilities. However, in many cases the process of creating PDFs limits the usefulness of the data contained in the PDF. Therefore, publication of PDFs to the exclusion of other formats limits the value of government data.
I support this bills intended goal of giving citizens access to public information that would be otherwise relatively inaccessible. Open government data and transparency is more than accessibility. In fact the W3C e-Government Interest Group’s (e-Gov IG) draft document on “Publishing Open Government Data” states that “sharing government data enables greater transparency; delivers more efficient public services; and encourages greater public and commercial use and re-use of government information.” What PDF provides in accessibility it can lack in usability and re-usability. That is why PDF only or strong reliance on PDF versions of government data should be augmented. I do not wish to belabor the pitfalls of the publication of open government data in PDF. Instead, I want to share what steps can be taken to provide complete openness and transparency to government information.
The W3C, the Sunlight Foundation, and other open government advocates recommed that government’s should use open standards based technologies when publishing data. Furthermore, in some cases the data or information that is converted to PDF is already in an open format, such as XML. The W3C e-Gov IG’s Publishing Open Government Data document makes the following initial recommendations for publishing government data:
Step 1: The quickest and easiest way to make data available on the Internet is to publish the data in its raw form (e.g., an XML file of polling data from past elections). However, the data should be well-structured. Structure allows others to successfully make automated use of the data. Well-known formats or structures include XML, RDF and CSV. Formats that only allow the data to be seen, rather than extracted (for example, pictures of the data), are not useful and should be avoided.
Step 2: Create an online catalog of the raw data (complete with documentation) so people can discover what has been posted. These raw datasets should be reliably structured and documented, otherwise their usefulness is negligible. Most governments already have mechanisms in place to create and store data (e.g., Excel, Word, and other software-specific file formats). Posting raw data, with an online catalog, is a great starting point, and reflects the next-step evolution of the Internet – “website as fileserver”.
Step 3: Make the data both human- and machine-readable:
- enrich your existing (X)HTML resources with semantics, metadata, and identifiers;
- encode the data using open and industry standards – especially XML – or create your own standards based on your vocabulary;
- make your data human-readable by either converting to (X)HTML, or by using real-time transformations through CSS or XSLT. Remember to follow accessibility requirements;
- use permanent patterned and/or discoverable “Cool URIs“;
- allow for electronic citations in the form of standardized (anchor/id links or XLINKs/XPointers) hyperlinks.
These steps will help the public to easily find, use, cite and understand the data. The data catalog should explain any rules or regulations that must be followed in the use of the dataset. Also, the data catalog itself is considered “data” and should be published as structured data, so that third parties can extract data about the datasets. Thoroughly document the parts of the web page, using valid XHTML, and choose easily patterned and discoverable URLs for the pages. Also syndicate the data for the catalog (using formats such as RSS) to quickly and easily advertise new datasets upon publication.
The ultimate goal is to make any data published by government both human and machine readable. Machine readability is import because it allows interested parties to more easily parse the data. Furthermore, machine readability is import because it helps to create opportunities for citizens and organizations to develop new and creative tools to give the data even greater value.
The use of PDF in government and in the private sector is persistent. Therefore, it is highly advisable that when a PDF is created that steps must be taken to include metadata formats, file attachments, and other features that will add value to the document and allow the data in the PDF to be more machine readable. If PDF is going to be the dominate form of publication, then the creation process should aim to create greater interoperability to forward the goal of usability and re-usability.
Again, I support this legislation’s goal of creating transparency and openness in public school finances. However, I would strongly encourage the Colorado General Assembly to more explicitly recommend the use of open standards based technologies when publishing any government data.
The following post is by a friend and colleague, Scott Primeau. (Disclosure I happen to be the co-work mentioned in the post). Scott provides valuable insight into the design of effective government.
via Colorado Commentary by Scott Primeau on 3/4/10
I was talking to a co-worker about our office’s reconfiguration plans, which involve merging divisions and training employees to handle a wider variety of customer needs. It’s a nice plan, and it is likely to benefit our customers by removing the layers they have to dig through to get to the services they need.
In the physical world the reconfiguration has involved combining two separate customer entrances that were on two different floors into a single entrance with employees from two divisions at the front counter. One of the next steps is to create a single call center for the two divisions, instead of the existing structure that utilizes an auto-mated phone tree to direct customers to the appropriate division. But, this post isn’t about the reconfiguration.
The discussion triggered some other thoughts about providing efficient services. Government watchdogs and government itself continually make calls for more efficient government- faster, more reliable service, at less cost.
A state government trend in this area has been the creation of Web-based portals that allow customers to access a variety of services from multiple state agencies through a single website. Some of these portals are a mere collection of information and links to other agencies, such as Colorado’s www.colorado.gov. Other portals are based on functional needs, such as registering a business through the Utah Division of Corporations’ OneStop Business Registration site, http://www.corporations.utah.gov/osbr_phase_2.html. (Both of those examples are NIC websites, but they are substantially different.)
Portals and other virtual spaces offer customers an alternative to visiting multiple government agencies to accomplish their tasks. But, the real key to efficiency is to make people efficient.
Efficiency isn’t just about consolidating locations, whether they are physical or virtual. Efficiency is about rationalizing functions.
Please hold the backlash for just a moment. I know this didn’t work so well with homeland security. That’s what my co-worker mentioned as he laughed, maybe rightfully so, at my suggestion of consolidating state agencies.
Technology is making a lot of improvements in efficiency possible. I do believe the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and other technological developments are making government better and are helping people get more from their government. But, can technology make up for inefficient structures? If a person has to visit at least three state agencies to form a business, get a license, and sign up to pay taxes, can a website make up for the twists and turns, the discrepancies in policies, the processing delays, and the inconsistency in customer service?
Technology can make up for a lot, but improving government is not just about making government more efficient; it’s about making people more efficient.
The question shouldn’t be how can government do it? The question should be how would a person do it? Processes should be designed around people’s practices and expectations. Government agencies shouldn’t expect people to adapt to the government’s ideas.
Redesigning government around people will take a lot more than new websites. Redesigning government will take changes to legal frameworks, a lot of vision, and a whole lot of cooperation.
I’m sure there are a lot of holes to this idea that I haven’t filled, but I’ll settle for starting with a little idealism.
(If you’re interested in some similar ideas, check out Nicholas Charney’s discussion on Govloop, Envisioning a fully web enabled government department/agency and the related comments.)