As Sunshine Week ends for this year, what should we expect from the future? The White House wants to know, too, and went on Quora, the social discussion site, to find out. 

Lisa Ellman, Chief Counselor for the Open Government Partnership and Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer, and Nick Sinai, Deputy Chief of the White House’s Technology Office, asked the following questions on Quora. (The White House also took answers on its website, but ironically those answers were not published.):

  • What Open Government commitments need the most additional work in the near term?
  • How can we be more responsive to your feedback?
  • How can we work more closely with the public to enhance the Government’s effectiveness?

As of Friday morning, the question had received more than 80 responses.

“No more pictures of paper — those aren't "electronic documents", even if they're GIF, TIFF, JPEG, PDF, whatever,” writes Erik Fair, a self-employed software engineer and former Apple employee who helped develop the Unix NNTP protocol used in Usenet. In other words, he says, text on the documents needs to be searchable and usable, not just an image. “No more proprietary formats, e.g., Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel,” he adds, echoing the concerns of some people about a forthcoming “digital dark ages” where people might no longer be able to read data’s formatting even if the data itself can be read.

“The government should put all documents — laws, data, etc — as HTML web pages,” agrees PHP programmer Isaac Rosenberg, “The days of the PDF are over. The days where you could simply scan a file, upload it to the web, and proclaim "transparency" are over. These laws and documents should be on standard web pages, no Javascript /proprietary plugins required, and each law should have its own web page.” Programmers could then use standard APIs to write on top of this data to make it easier to navigate, he says.

In addition, there needs to be more interaction between separate government databases, notes OpentheGovernment.org, in an open letter to the President that it posted in the discussion. The group has been working since 2007 on government openness, and celebrates Friday as National Freedom of Information Day. “A plan is needed to increase data quality on USAspending.gov, and to make it possible for other databases, such as those about tax compliance, to be linked to spending information through a publicly available identifier,” according to the letter. “New tools need to be developed to allow all recipients of federal funds to create electronic reports that can be used to show how federal funds flow.”

Several people also suggested various aspects of openness in government officials’ calendars, such as knowing with whom members of Congress were meeting, though others expressed skepticism about this.

Finally, a number of people raised issues regarding better support for the Freedom of Information Act. “All federal agencies should participate in FOIA Online,” writes Daniel Z. Epstein, Executive Director at Cause of Action, non-partisan organization that uses public advocacy and legal reform tools to ensure greater transparency in government, protect taxpayer interests and promote economic freedom. He noted that his organization has had some FOIA requests outstanding for more than six months. “Only 6 agencies currently participate. FOIA Online is a great tool that allows users to file and track FOIA requests with participating agencies. Users can also search pending and completed requests. At the very least, agencies should attempt to provide a timetable for when the documents can be produced.”

The Obama administration also came under sharp criticism from a number of posters for what they perceived to be slow responses to FOIA requests, failure to follow through on campaign promises for increased government openness, and scapegoating open government advocates such as Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning. “Swartz's activism was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles — namely, the war over how the Internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it — and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information,” wrote Brian Browne Walker, author and translator of several books of Asian philosophy.


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