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Here’s a a thought-provoking tweet forwarded to me by Jonathan Petters. Random twitter user Kenny Jacoby found a giant 1,200 page document that he wanted to use — not read! So what did he do? He banged on it for 8 hours in order to extract all the data from the PDF and convert it to a structured dataset. Good on him for doing that, but how many people have the skills and time to be able to do that?
And this, kind readers, is a perfect example of what we’ve been writing about here at FGI for some time. In the age of near-ubiquitous online access, it’s not enough for governments to publish PDFs, they need to provide more and better access for both humans and machines.
Information must be:
not just preserved, but discoverable [2.2.2]
not just discoverable, but deliverable [2.3.3]
not just deliverable as bits, but readable [2.2.1]
not just readable, but understandable [2.2.1]
not just understandable, but usable [188.8.131.52]
(*numbers in brackets refer to sections of the OAIS standard.)
This is a nut that our friends at the Congressional Data Coalition are trying to crack. And some federal agencies are wading into this space as well — see for example Data.gov. But there are still far too many examples of this data/publication divide. It’s going to take a concerted effort by the public, watchdog groups like Sunlight Foundation and OpenTheGovernment along with librarians to push for this change in the way we think about government information.
Spent about 8 hours writing and debugging code to scrape a hideous 1,200-page PDF into a structured dataset because a public agency refused to give up its raw data.
Don’t mess with me. pic.twitter.com/Eiz1SZl3Xx
— Kenny Jacoby (@kennyjacoby) May 28, 2018
Bernadine Abbott Hoduski, the grande dame of government documents — she’s got a GODORT award named after her for gosh sakes! — sent me this announcement. The Montana library Association, at its annual membership meeting in March, 2017, passed a packet of resolutions including their Resolution on Funding the Preservation of Federal Government Publications (text below). The resolution calls on the US Congress to “fully fund preservation of Federal government publications housed in federal depository libraries.”
The resolution has been sent to Montana’s US Senator Jon Tester, who happens to sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Please consider taking this text and passing the resolution at other state library associations, especially if your state’s senator sits on the Appropriations Committee. I’ve sent the text of this resolution to CA Senator Diane Feinstein.
Thanks bernadine for all your hard work on this and through the many years!
Resolution on Funding the Preservation of Federal Government Publications
Whereas, Democracy depends upon the public’s access to information from and about the United States federal government; and
Whereas, to preserve the historic record of our country, the United States Congress established a distributed system of Federal depository libraries to safeguard government information from dangers ranging from bit-rot to fire; and
Whereas, the United States Federal depository libraries provide public access to federal government publications and information without charge; and
Whereas, Federal depository libraries spend millions of dollars collecting, housing, cataloging, and providing public access to federal government information, and
Whereas, Federal depository libraries lack enough money to preserve millions of federal government publications in paper, microform, and digital formats; and
Whereas, the U. S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) established FIPNet (Federal Information Preservation Network) as part of the “National Plan for Access to U. S. Government Information” – a strategy for a collaborative network of information professionals working in various partner roles to ensure access to the national collection of government information for future generations. FIPNet contributes to the preservation of both tangible and digital government information, and elevates the public awareness and prestige of local initiatives, specific collections of government information, and the institutions and agencies that have stewardship over them; and
Whereas, GPO is not authorized to provide funding directly to depository libraries that agree to preserve federal government publications; and
Whereas, the United States Congress can authorize GPO to provide funding to depository libraries; and Whereas, GPO needs additional funding and staff to provide on-site support for libraries in the building of an inventory and catalog of all their federal government publications in order to plan for preservation;
Therefore, be it resolved that:
The Montana Library Association urges the U. S. Congress to fully fund preservation of Federal government publications housed in federal depository libraries; and
The Montana Library Association urges the U. S. Congress to authorize the U. S. Government Publishing Office to provide funds directly to libraries for the preservation of the federal government publications (paper, microform, and digital) housed in their libraries; and
The Montana Library Association urges Congress to provide funding to the Superintendent of Documents (GPO) so agency librarians can travel to depository libraries to advise librarians in preservation activities, including inventorying, cataloging, and planning for preservation of government publications.
Adopted by the Montana Library Association Membership March 31, 2017
James Boyle, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School and co-founder of Science Commons, has a new piece about the so-called “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (H.R.801) that lays out the arguments against this bill in chilling detail. He says that the bill “is so badly drafted that it would also wreak havoc on federal information policy more generally.”
- Misunderestimating open science, By James Boyle, Financial Times, February 24 2009.
As a copyright professor, I have to say the bill is a nightmare. For reasons I won’t bore you with, its limitations on Federal agencies are completely unworkable. And as a scholar who writes about innovation, I have to say that it flies in the face of decades of research which shows the extraordinary multiplier effect of free access to information on the speed of scientific development. But speaking as a human being, I just have to wonder what could be going through a politician’s head at a moment like this.
…This bill would forbid us from building the World Wide Web for science, even for the research that taxpayers have funded.
Professor Boyle’s most recent book is The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press.) which you can download for free from http://thepublicdomain.org .
The new regimes in the White House and Capitol Hill continue their complicated policy waltz to seriously address the ongoing financial failures. Waiting for the turn on the dance card, advocates for free government information must surely grasp that the revelations and revolutions so hotly anticipated after last year’s elections remain just that — anticipations. We are still in tactical mode with our federal government (and state governments) when it comes to information technology and proactive and deliberative civic information policy. Yes — agencies use social networking tools, cloud-computing and liberation of CRS reports by non-profit groups make more information easily accessible, and the use of twitter, blogs and otheer “push technologies” by elected officials deepen the connection betwen the elected and those who sent them into public service.
But is there a strategy? Has the Obama team, or the democratic leadership in Congress for that matter, revealed any long-term plans that take advantage of technology’s democratic possibilities? Not really. If free government information advocates believe it is only a matter of time, the struggle for restoring confidence in the economy is necessarily taking precedence, then one would hope to see indications of the promised innovation and strategy. But that didn’t happen. The stimulus legislation is mired in political horse trading, with much of the money supposed to address information infrastructure issues gutted from the Senate version. Other commentators reflect on just how much the the president’s current efforts fall far short of the electoral promise in education or the treasury proposals to shore up the banking industry.
That is not to say Obama is little better than Bush. Not at all. What I am saying is that if any progressive or deliberative effort to strategically improve the country’s vastly complicated civic information infrastructure through better institutions and use of technology is going to have to come from the grassroots.
So here again is one more reason to get involved at at the local, state and national level to shape and proposed the variety of proposals from government groups, library groups and citizen groups. In November the revolution won might be characterized in this way — we are now able to talk about government as a POSITIVE force in our society. The revolution we wage now is to move beyond the rhetoric and put into something “shovel ready” into motion.
It won’t happen any other way.
See you on day 22.