Helpful egovernment tools

Some pleasant discoveries in a weekend with lots of electronic and physical housekeeping. Travis County, Texas hadn’t figured out that I’d moved to California, and sent a jury duty notice. They also had a nifty online application that lets you tell them you’ve moved and are no longer eligible. Palo Alto’s traffic citation system doesn’t let you pay fines online, but there’s a reasonably sane automated voice system to pay a traffic ticket with a credit card. They charge a very annoying $12 fee to pay the ticket online, but avoiding an hour-long errand is worth it. I don’t mind paying for decent services with taxes or fees; it’s just that the gov’t is probably saving money when citizens do their own data entry.

Wiki investigative activism

At the Sunlight Foundation event, several tools were using wiki and wiki-like features. Eugene Kim and I led a session on effective wiki practices. One of the people at the session was at a traditional NGO, and wants her group to be more open, potentially using wiki for distributed information gathering around their core coverage. One of the barriers to wikification is the fear of “anyone editing” and the potential impact on quality. The NGO benefits from the specialized nature of its information. There are 10,000 regular users of the database, which feels like a lot to the NGO. But with a community of 10,000 readers, one might expect to start small, and build to a group of contributors in the hundreds to low thousands, which is quite a manageable size. Also, the “watchlist” feature of larger wikis enables subcommunities of specialists to watch and protect the areas they care about most, and develop social norms to maintain quality. Another cultural barriers to wikification was that the staff considers readers — mostly journalists — as an audience, and not yet as a community. The main cultural transition is to consider the readers a participatory community, and to evolve from a private, letter to the editor model to a peer contribution model.
The barriers faced by this NGO seem common to the sector. Traditional public interest organizations see their audiences as traditional journalists and legislative staff. Their content is not-very-accessible databases and pdf reports; the websites have little about the people involved in the organization; the membership, when their is one, is seen as a source of credit cards and petition signers, but not organizers and active participants. NGOs need some new cultural concepts to take advantage of the new tools.
There were some interesting wiki ventures at the event, and new in the world. CongressPedia was at the event. One of the strengths of that model is the ability to build a persistent and easily google-able reference source. Another Sunlight-funded tool, Open Congress, is aggregating bill and blog data to provide more visibility into the bill-making process. The foks building the tool plan to add a “wiki” feature for collaboration. Not sure how that would work, that seems like an invitation to edit wars and disinformation because of the frequently competitive nature of the legislative process.
I’m most excited about the potential of the Adopt a Committee project of the Daily Kos community. This is starting with a community of likeminded folk to grow and protect the information; enables distributed information gathering and group memory for a large number of people with mixed amounts of time; and seems like a great way to shed light on the committee process where bills take shape. Perhaps the role models for successful use of read/write web tools will be new groups that aren’t burdened by traditional top-down-media orientation. If the dot com revolution is a model, startup organizations will pioneer new techniques, which will eventually get rolled into the ordinary way of doing business.

Sunlight Foundation – Web2.0 meets government

What would it be like if public information: bills and supporters, government spending, campaign donations, were online and mashup-able like Amazon books and Google maps, and collaborative like wikipedia? I had a chance to go to an event put on by the Sunlight Foundation, which is investing in this vision, and admire some excellent tools, such as Maplight, a new, useful and elegant database of political contributions in California, and project VoteSmart,which tracks US and state politicians voting records.
Getting the tools crew together was fun; the next step is to mix it up with users. One of the participants in the “speed geeking” cohort I was in — this is like speed dating but with tech demos — was a journalist, and it was a thrill seeing him get excited about all of the lovely sources. As a sometime activist, I also saw the tools with the eyes of a potential user. There needs to be an event with the Sunlight toolset, and the crew of journalists, bloggers, public interest folk, and staffers who would actually use it, to get the word out, and get feedback.
It is excellent that Sunlight is funding this stuff — it is the old-fashioned, geeky progressive vision that government is better with oversight and transparency. The value is combining the dispassionate data with the energy of folks trying to expose corruption and get good things done.
So, a new generation of tools is getting funded at the same time that the traditional users of the tools — journalists — are facing an economically dubious future. The unholy alliance of advertising and news is breaking apart — the money is siphoning to Google and to Craigs List. There is more than enough great data to keep investigative journalists quite busy, but what is going to pay their rent?

Belated election happy

I’m proud of California for electing Debra Bowen, a top-notch advocate for transparent, secure, reliable and open voting systems. And for rejecting Prop 90, the legislative approach that makes environmental and land use regulation impractical, which is currently wreaking havoc on Oregon (the link has telling stories about mining in national parks and neighborhoods. I didn’t vote for Arnold; in an era when R has come to mean no-bid contracts, torture, infinite detention, opposition to birth control, and any number of other extreme and unsavory things, I am not voting for any Rs, but I’m pretty pleased that he figured out that he needs to govern as a moderate democrat in order to keep his job.
Not to mention the US, for waking up and throwing the bums out. It will take a lot of work to recover, and build differently, hopefully we can.