President Barack Obama has pledged to make the U.S. Government more open and transparent. As a senator, he was off to a promising start by trying to expand the amount of government data offered up to public scrutiny. The most important aspect of his proposal (which has yet to make it into law) was not what information it required the Feds to provide but how they were supposed to supply it. All data on federal funding would have to be made available through "applications programming interfaces," a Web 2.0 tool for managing large amounts of data. The APIs would make it easy for third parties—citizens, civic groups, activists or lobbyists—to take the information and incorporate it into online maps and visual displays or "mashups" that compare it with other data. It would go a long way toward harnessing the Web to promote a rigorous public dialogue.
The idea is that government agencies should make public data openly available, and then get out of the way to let the best outside talent reimagine how it can be used online. It's something of a free-market approach to nosing around in the government's business. David Robinson, associate director of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, has argued for what he envisions as an "ecosystem" of open, easily accessible public data. The competitive advantage that savvy, civic-minded Web developers have over federal Webmasters would increase the opportunities for public engagement with the activities of government.
A visit to nearly any U.S. government Web site shows how much improvement is needed. The sites, like government offices, are often cramped and confusing, with information that flows in one direction through thick, bulletproof glass. Even Obama had to backtrack when he took office: BarackObama.com, the campaign Web site, and Change.gov, set up for the president's transition, were models of responsiveness, but WhiteHouse.gov is much more staid. Part of the problem is that official sites run into tricky legal ground on free speech, which makes it difficult to do things like moderate comments on a Web site. Civic groups, by contrast, would have no such restrictions. Open APIs would also help enourage a healthy competition of ideas for disseminating government data.
Civic groups have already had a big impact on the relationship between government and its citizens; they just do it, without APIs, by painstakingly gathering the data. GovTrack.us, developed by University of Pennsylvania grad student Joshua Tauberer, has become a widely used source for tracking legislation through the U.S. Congress in just a few short years, with 15,000 visitors daily. It outperforms the THOMAS online database managed by the Library of Congress, from which GovTrack culls most of its information, by offering an easy way to track bills in Congress and a blog with play-by-play on the legislative process. The site even sends e-mail updates to thousands of subscribers on the bills and lawmakers they're interested in. Similarly, MAP Light.org takes the same congressional data and mashes it up with information on campaign contributions provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, which offers its own API from data it gathers. Having access to government data via APIs would allow them to focus on analysis rather than presentation.
Civic groups in Britain have also begun to assemble their own data and offer it up to public use. The nonprofit mySociety has won international attention for its work in making the British government more accessible and accountable, but access to public data still has a way to go. "Sadly, not one of the APIs mySociety would like to see exists yet," says Tom Steinberg, the group's founder. The group's TheyWork ForYou.com gives citizens access to the voting records of their local members of Parliament and a direct link for e-mailing them with their concerns. It has become such a part of political life that some ministers now closely monitor their own reputations on the site. FixMyStreet.com, another of the group's projects, gives residents in local councils a hassle-free way of reporting needed street repairs, instead of muddling through a gamut of Web sites. FixMyStreet relays user-generated complaints to the right office, and provides a community forum, following up with an e-mail to ask how the complaint was handled. Local governments in Norway, India and Canada are copying the model.
The Obama administration could make such arrangements commonplace by supplying APIs along with Federal data. USAspending.gov, which was set up to disclose federal expenditures, includes an API. The more important question is whether Recovery.gov, the site tracking the economic-stimulus package that went live when the bill became law earlier this month, will eventually include an API?
Of course, relying on governments to supply APIs has a downside. Although they make it possible to handle a flood of data, to some degree the government agencies that create them will be able to determine how the data can be used. For this reason, Robinson would prefer to see the Feds release its raw data. But providing an API, and then stepping aside to let others do the presenting, would be better than nothing. At a time when the role of government is expanding rapidly, we certainly don't need a bigger presence online.