Open Government Initiative Blog

  • Law.Gov: Access to the Raw Materials of Our Democracy

    Open government seeks to make the workings and information of government more accessible to all. One important aspect of open government is enabling access to one of the most basic forms of government information – the law.  As John Podesta, President of Center for American Progress said during the opening to today’s “Law.Gov” conference:

    What it’s about is making all primary materials in the United States more readily available, from water districts, counties, cities, and states all the way up to the three branches of the federal government. It isn’t about building the ultimate web site and putting WestLaw out of business.  What Law.gov aims to achieve is changing how governmental bodies that make the law present their work product – pushing government to meet the basic requirement that the public has easy access to their work product.

    Access to the law is vital to ensuring the rule of law. It also has very practical consequences of relevance to our daily lives. As Carl Malamud, organizer of the Law.gov conference pointed out:

    If you want to make juice in California, you need much more than a good supply of mangos.… Title 17 of the California Code of Regulations deals with Sanitation in Food Plants. The Office of Administrative Law of the State of California asserts copyright over the California Code of Regulations and contracts with Barclays to publish the document. You can view the provisions on their web site, but I can’t make a copy that looks differently, say one that is aimed specifically at juice guys…. And, of course, you need to be fully familiar with the HACCP regulations, series of detailed standards on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points from the Food and Drug Administration. The HACCP regulations, in turn, incorporate by reference a raft of technical standards such as ANSI/NSF Standard Number 7 for Commercial Refrigerators and Storage Freezers, which is $100 per copy, if you want to do due diligence on your freezer and read the tech spec. These documents are just a start for the serious juice professional.

    It is not self-evident that the law is available. As Erika Wayne, Deputy Law Librarian at Stanford Law School went on to describe, eight states assert copyright, which restricts use of the online versions of their codes. At least one state provides access to case law for a fee.  PACER, the federal courts court records online system, imposes eight cent per page cost that several speakers commented on as limiting access to court records. Rather than going to fund PACER, much of the money collected ($129 million) goes largely to fund other courtroom technology, said Stephen Schultze of Princeton University.  If the courts made court records available in bulk form, "they might be able to provide the services for free and, at the same time, enabling third-party innovators to develop new products."

    Even when material is free, it may not be accessible and, in addition, private information that shouldn’t be available may not be adequately protected. “Access to the law doesn’t simply mean access to the courtroom,” said Schultze. “We have to make sure that our practices in today’s new technological environment respect our principles with regard to openness as well as privacy.”

    A number of White House officials are participating in today’s event because the White House Open Government Initiative is following the law.gov movement closely. We are interested in feedback regarding what the Federal government might do to support access to legal information.

    You can follow the proceedings live online today and view the archive here

    Beth Noveck is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of White House Open Government Initiative.

  • Harnessing the Power of Information to Improve Health

    On Wednesday, we launched a vital new HHS Open Government effort: The Community Health Data Initiative (CHDI).  Joined by almost 700 people in person and online, the Initiative was publicly launched by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius along with Deputy Secretary Bill Corr, Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg, and White House CTO Aneesh Chopra at a forum held at the National Academy of Sciences.  

    The Community Health Data Initiative is an incredibly exciting new public-private collaboration that is encouraging innovators to utilize data made publicly available by HHS to develop applications that will help raise awareness of community health performance, spark action to improve performance, and empower individuals and communities to make informed choices about their health.

    This initiative has its roots in a brainstorming session of public and private sector innovators held on March 11 by the Institute of Medicine and HHS.  The objective of the March session was to explore what could be done with HHS’s vast stores of community health data – e.g., smoking rates, obesity rates, access to healthy food, utilization of medical services, etc. If HHS made such data easily accessible by the public, would innovators be interested in developing creative new uses for it that could benefit the public? 

    The answer was a resounding yes, so we went to work. Innovators from the worlds of business, technology, academia, and community advocacy identified many areas where exciting new applications to improve health could be developed. HHS built an interim CHDI website and posted a consolidated group of HHS community health data sets in easily accessible, downloadable form. Innovators from across the country then took our data and – in less than 12 weeks! – put together an amazing array of new or improved applications that utilize our data in creative and powerful ways to help advance health.   

    At the forum on Wednesday, we showcased more than a dozen of these apps, plus others which have been recently developed. They collectively represented an absolutely stunning show of the power of American innovation, including: 

    • An interactive community health dashboard that allows civic leaders and citizens to see a “report card” of health performance in their county and learn about the latest best practices that other communities have implemented to improve their performance;
    • Integration of patient satisfaction ratings from Medicare’s Hospital Compare database into web search results for hospitals – bringing this information to your fingertips
    • Amazing new health mapping tools that help consumers, providers, and policymakers focus on the right questions and make better informed choices
    • A brilliant new combination of GPS device and app that allows asthmatics to have their inhalers automatically transmit the location and time of each use – producing an anonymized, real-time map of asthma incidence that can provide crucial guidance regarding how to target interventions to reduce the burden of asthma
    • A (highly addictive) new online card game that engages you in a discovery of your community’s health and well-being status and how it compares to other communities in a head-to-head clash
    • And more!

    The event, viewable here (video), highlighted the power of bringing together innovators from federal and local government, the public health community, information technology firms, major businesses, nonprofits, academia, and the health care system to do incredible things that no one organization or sector could possibly have done by itself. It was a truly inspiring experience – with much more to come! 

    Moving forward, the Community Health Data Initiative will continue to expand the supply of data being made available to innovators – including major new data from HHS and from private sector sources. And we are looking forward to the next wave of super-cool apps that will be built leveraging CHDI data – many of which will be created as part of the 2010 Health 2.0 Developer Challenge, announced at the forum on Wednesday, and showcased at the Health 2.0 conference in October in San Francisco. To learn more about the Developer Challenge, visit www.health2challenge.org.   

    Todd Park is the Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, Aman Bhandari is Policy Analyst for the Chief Technology Officer

  • Data.gov: Pretty Advanced for a One-Year-Old

    One year ago, data.gov was born with 47 datasets of government information that was previously unavailable to the public. The thinking behind this was that this data belonged to the American people, and you should not only know this information, but also have the ability to use it. By tapping the collective knowledge of the American people, we could leverage this government asset to deliver more for millions of people.

    Today, there are more than 250,000 datasets, hundreds of applications created by third parties, and a global movement to democratize data. To date, the site has received 97.6 million hits, and following the Obama Administration’s lead, governments and institutions of all sizes are unlocking the value of data for their constituents.  San Francisco, New York City, the State of California, the State of Utah, the State of Michigan, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have launched data.gov-type sites, as have countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK as well as the World Bank.

    From these datasets, citizens have developed hundreds of applications that help parents keep their children safe, let travelers find the fastest route to their destinations, and inform home buyers about the safety of their new neighborhood.  Never before have people been so empowered with the information they need to make decisions every day.

    As I reflect on the 1st anniversary of data.gov, the most important accomplishment is the birth of a community of innovators that is helping change the way Washington works. 

    In less than eight months, a team of students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed over 40 applications using data.gov.  These applications range from easily searching the roster of visitors to the White House and tracking foreign aid across the world to shining light on the ratio of debt to assets for bankrupt companies.

    At the Sunlight Foundation, a community of developers continues to build on the Apps for America contest that brought us innovative apps that allow us to check wait times at airports, demystify the rule making process and empower people with the tools to mash up different datasets to unearth new insights. 

    At the World Bank, recognizing the power of prizes to mobilize new and diverse talent, they are encouraging the development of applications that make innovative use of more than 2,000 data sets that document human development worldwide, including health, business, finance, environment, and social welfare statistics.

    As we look to the next year, we recognize that the Web itself is evolving into a data platform and how important it is to link data from one agency to another or one country to another.  True value lies at the intersection of multiple datasets and what we are witnessing is a continued movement across the world to democratize data, but more importantly the explosion of applications created by the emergence of a community of innovators. 

    So all you innovators out there – what data sets can we try to get out there to help you go further? Tweet your ideas for data we should try to put out with hashtag #datagov, and we’ll see what we can do in year 2.

    Vivek Kundra is U.S. Chief Information Officer

  • Improving Transparency at the Food and Drug Administration: We Want Your Feedback

    Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Transparency Task Force is releasing 21 draft proposals aimed at helping consumers, stakeholders, and others understand how FDA works and makes decisions. FDA would like the public to provide feedback on these ideas.  After 60 days, FDA will use your comments to make recommendations to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg for implementation.

    Following the leadership and commitment of President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to transparent and open government, Commissioner Hamburg launched FDA's Transparency Initiative in June 2009. Since then, FDA has held two public meetings, participated in public listening sessions, launched an online transparency blog, and established a public record to accept public comments. FDA has received more than 1500 comments from the public about transparency at the agency. Two major initiatives already have been launched as a result of public suggestions.

    Earlier this year, FDA launched a popular new website, FDA Basics, to help better explain the work that FDA does. We also launched a new public performance system called FDA-TRACK to help track the agency’s progress on important projects and programs.

    Our next step is releasing this report today. This report has proposals that were developed based on public input. All the proposals are designed to help provide more information to the public while maintaining confidentiality for trade secrets and individually identifiable information.

    For example, one proposal is for FDA to explain its reasoning when it declines to approve a medical product. Disclosing this kind of information could help researchers and others in the medical products industry develop improved products for approval.

    In another proposal, when a drug sponsor decides for business reasons not to pursue approval for a drug designed to treat a rare disease, FDA would be allowed to explain that the drug could represent a significant therapeutic advance for the disease. That type of information could cause another company to continue with the application or encourage additional investment for the development of the drug.

    These are just two of the proposals included in the report. These kinds of proposals will allow the public, Congress, media, industry and many other stakeholders to better understand the health and safety decisions FDA makes each day about foods, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, and other widely used consumer products. The report also proposes steps FDA can take to open up the agency, including providing more information about the agency’s interactions with the media and the process used to implement the Freedom of Information Act.

    You can read more about the transparency report FDA is releasing today in a Perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine online, "Transparency at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."

    Not all of the 21 draft proposals will necessarily be implemented. Some require extensive resources to implement and some may require changes to regulations or legislation. You can read the draft proposals here and let us know what you think before July 20, 2010. Go to the FDA Web site to provide your input on these proposals and tell us which should be our top priorities.

    Beth Martino is the Associate Commissioner of External Affairs at FDA.
     

  • An Invitation to Join the League of Awesomeness

    Web comedian Ze Frank once coined the term “The League of Awesomeness” to describe people who “strive to make the world more awesome.” The assembled multitude at the “Enabling Environmental Protection Through Transparency and Open Government” symposium in Philadelphia is doing just that this week.

    Over one thousand people are spending four days at the symposium, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Information. In an extravaganza of 86 separate sessions, they are talking about the “how to” of open government – how to implement EPA’s Open Government Plan and translate the lofty ideas of transparency, participation, and collaboration into practical means of furthering it’s the agency’s core mission.

    That’s one thousand attendees from private sector organizations; state, local, and tribal governments; EPA program and regional offices; environmental groups; business and industry; the scientific community; academia; the media; and the general public, all gathering to explore strategies for incorporating transparency, participation, and collaboration into the EPA’s work to safeguard the environment and promote smart and sustainable growth.

    They are discussing what new information—such as the toxic release inventory—should  be published online (via data.gov and the EPA’s own data finder,  to inform people about environmental hazards, encourage the development of new jobs and businesses based on environmental information, catch wrong-doers committing environmental crimes, and  reduce the costs of compliance to business. They have come to explore strategies for using modern technology, including web 2.0 social media, to foster greater participation by the public in the work of the EPA as well as greater collaboration across EPA disciplines (such as legal, finance, and tech), departments and agencies, and with the private sector. 

    During the Q&A after the Introductory Plenary, a woman stood up and introduced herself as “just a citizen.” She went on to describe how she had been forced to vacate her home because of environmental contaminants. She gave an impassioned plea to be consulted in any ensuing EPA investigation as she knew the situation first-hand and had useful knowledge to share.

    The League of Environmental Awesomeness applauded in empathetic support. She had come to the right place.  The room was filled with the spirit of excitement and the possibility of engaging with the EPA in entirely new ways.

    You too can become a member of the league of open-government awesomeness, and you don’t even have to come to Philadelphia. Follow the ongoing meeting online via @EPAlive, (hash tag #OEI2010) or watch videos of the plenary sessions.

  • Moving to the Cloud

    Today, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board announced that it is moving Recovery.gov to the cloud. As the world’s largest consumer of information technology and as stewards of taxpayer dollars, the Federal Government has a duty to be a leader in pioneering the use of new technologies that are more efficient and economical.

    For those of you not familiar with cloud computing, here is a brief explanation. There was a time when every household, town, or village had its own water well. Today, shared public utilities give us access to clean water by simply turning on the tap. Cloud computing works a lot like our shared public utilities. However, instead of water coming from a tap, users access computing power from a pool of shared resources. Just like the tap in your kitchen, cloud computing services can be turned on or off as needed, and, when the tap isn’t on, not only can the water be used by someone else, but you aren’t paying for resources that you don’t use.  Cloud computing is a new model for delivering computing resources – such as networks, servers, storage, or software applications.

    Recovery.gov is the first government-wide system to move to the cloud. The move is part of the Administration’s overall efforts to cut waste and fix or end government programs that don’t work. By migrating to the public cloud, the Recovery Board is in position to leverage many advantages including the ability keep the site up as millions of Americans help report potential fraud, waste, and abuse. The Board expects savings of about $750,000 during its current budget cycle and significantly more savings in the long-term.

    In April, HHS leveraged cloud computing to support implementation of Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems. To coordinate healthcare providers’ implementation of new Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems, HHS is deploying a cloud-based customer relationship and project management solution provided by Salesforce.com. The solutions will support HHS’s Regional Extension Centers in assisting doctors and rural hospitals in the selection, implementation and meaningful use of EHRs. Various implementation approaches can be analyzed to quickly identify best practices for EHR implementation as they emerge.

    By using cloud services, the Federal Government will gain access to powerful technology resources faster and at lower costs. This frees us to focus on mission-critical tasks instead of purchasing, configuring, and maintaining redundant infrastructure.

    The Obama Administration is committed to leveraging the power of cloud computing to help close the technology gap and deliver for the American people. I am hopeful that that the Recovery Board’s move to the cloud will serve as a model for making government’s use of technology smarter, better, and faster.

    Vivek Kundra is U.S. Chief Information Officer