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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.


“What used to take hours to dig up and analyze is now laid bare for you to see in seconds or minutes,” so states the homepage of MAPLight.org, a new website that brings together campaign contributions and how legislators vote, creating more transparency of the connections between money and politics. This includes:

– How each legislator voted on each of the 5,000 bills in the 2003-2004 California legislative session.

– All campaign contributions made to each legislator from 2001-2004, categorized by the interest or industry of the contributor.

– Supporters and opponents of each bill, and the industries and interests those supporters and opponents represent.

– A brief description of each bill, and the subject the bill is about.

– The full text of each bill, including committee reports and amendments.

So far, MAPLight.org currently includes all 5,000 bills in the 2003-2004 California legislative session and all California campaign contributions from January 2001 through December 2004. They are seeking donations and support to extend MAPLight.org to include data for other states and U.S. Congress. This is a very promising project, so let’s give them our support!

Patrice McDermott notes politics of putting information online

Panelist notes politics of putting agency information online, by Aliya Sternstein, National Journal’s Technology Daily, June 19, 2007 PM edition. (reprinted in GovExec and available without subscription)

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, chose to participate in a Tuesday workshop sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Science Research Initiative because she wants to convince techies that the government’s underutilization of the Internet has a lot to do with politics.

…She said that at the workshop, attendees told her that government agencies just need to make their databases available on the Internet, and others in the online community will reformat the contents so the information is compatible with new technologies. “Others will create the [topical] tags” that allow the content to be integrated into advanced Web technologies, they said.

McDermott’s reply: The policy is already there to do that. “It’s been there for years. It’s just not being enforced. It takes leadership from the White House.”

The Technical is Political

As much as we’d like to think that information policies are free from politics, it just isn’t true. It is not often that the press deals with how politics affects information policy, but it is increasingly easy for the press to deal with the issue when it comes to issues of technology. And so we have an article in this week’s Government Computer News:

Karrie Peterson and I wrote about this in some detail:

  • The Technical is Political by James A. Jacobs and Karrie Peterson, Of Significance… 3(1) 2001, p.25-35. Association of Public Data Users. (Full text PDF file)

In the realm of government information, technical decisions about data format, access software and public distribution methods are inherently political decisions. They affect what kind of data can be accessed, how, by whom, and for how long into the future it will be available. To evaluate and respond appropriately to policy changes by government producers of data, technical issues must also be looked at in the light of social values shared by the data-using community.

How does a newly decked-out data product fare with regard to open access? Privacy of individuals? Documentation that allows the data to be correctly cited, tested for reliability, re-used in the future? Social and political concerns also come into play when the flexibility offered by distributing raw data is balanced against locking the data into a “user-friendly” software, and when products traditionally produced by the federal government are privatized.

As private industry pushes harder for information to become a commodity – something that can be sold for profit – it is important for data users to push back with a strong philosophy of information as a social good, and to evaluate data products and access in light of their value to society, rather than on strictly narrow technical grounds.