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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.

Interesting, illustrative, informative, bizarre… polar bears in the Federal Register

The Government Printing Office in a press release today announced a success story in the use of the Application Programming Interface (API) for Federal Register. It is certainly interesting and illustrative of how an API can be used to deliver information to a particular community of interest, but I think you may also find it unexpectedly unusual. A researcher used the FR API to create a tracking system for polar bear protection documents.

GPO AND OFR SHOWCASE OPEN GOVERNMENT SUCCESS STORY

WASHINGTON-The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) and the National Archives’ Office of the Federal Register (OFR) report a success story from the Application Programming Interface (API) for FederalRegister.gov. GPO and OFR introduced the API in August 2011, enabling information technology developers to create new applications for regulatory information published in the Federal Register. A researcher utilized the API to create a tracking system for polar bear protection documents. The API tool automatically grabs Federal Register items that mention polar bears from 1994 to present, displays the items in a formatted list with browsing capabilities, and links back to the full text on FederalRegister.gov.

Link to Polar Bear Feed: http://polarbearfeed.etiennebenson.com/

“This is another example of how GPO and OFR continue to find ways in achieving the goal of making Government information more transparent and giving users the ability to adapt Federal Register data to their own needs,” said Public Printer Bill Boarman.

“We are thrilled to see the use of the API source material to develop a live feed on the subject of polar bears. This is precisely how we hoped this information would be used when we made it available to the public. We couldn’t be more gratified,” said Director of the Federal Register Ray Mosley.

The print and online versions of the Federal Register are the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other Presidential documents.

Critical commons adds to Hitler bunker remix meme

No doubt folks have seen at least 1 of the growing video remixes of Hitler in the bunker. Well here’s a new one from Critical Commons that highlights digital scholarship, open courseware, and fair use. Nicely done.

Critical Commons provides information about current copyright law and its alternatives in order to facilitate the writing and dissemination of best practices and fair use guidelines for scholarly and creative communities. Critical Commons also functions as a showcase for innovative forms of electronic scholarship and creative production that are transformative, culturally enriching and both legally and ethically defensible. At the heart of Critical Commons is an online tool for viewing, tagging, sharing, annotating and curating media within the guidelines established by a given community. Our goal is to build open, informed communities around media-based teaching, learning and creativity, both inside and outside of formal educational environments.


Statistical reality check

As noted here earlier, Sunlight Labs has announced the three finalists in its “Apps for America 2” competition. One of those is DataMasher which enables users to “have a little fun” with government data “by creating mashups to visualize them in different ways and see how states compare on important issues. Users can combine different data sets in interesting ways and create their own custom rankings of the states.”

A post about this on slashdot prompted a reply, Lies, Damned Lies, and DataMasher that worries that “in practice DataMasher would end up mostly generating a lot of bad information.” The reply continues:

The site as it exists now seems to encourage you to think about issues in a really simplistic way (with a simple arithmetic combination of two numbers on a state by state basis) that’s going to mislead more often than inform. The devil is always in the spurious correlations, and DataMasher just doesn’t give you ability to get at that sort of thing (nor do most people have the understanding of statistics anyway).

…Statistics are extremely useful in determining public policy, but only if used carefully. There’s already so much bad use of statistics in our public policy debates, and DataMasher seems perfectly designed (unintentionally, I’m sure) to exacerbate the problem.

I am very sympathetic to this argument but would add an additional caveat to it. Any tool can be misused or used badly. Decades ago, some statisticians were upset when commercial software like SAS and SPSS were being introduced because it allowed anyone to run a regression without knowing what it was or how to do the math or whether they were regressing variables that made sense. While it is certainly true that the design of tools can encourage misuse or bad use, it is also true, I think, that even well-designed tools can be used badly and even bad tools may be better than no tools because they can encourage imagination and exploration and curiosity. Those can lead to better, more informed questions and analysis.

For libraries and service providers there is another side to this story. As tools like DataMasher become more available and easier to use, it actually creates new challenges for information service providers. Rather than making our jobs easier, the availability of these kinds of tools actually makes our jobs more complex. Rather than pointing at a reliable book of statistics, created by government statisticians and published by the government, we now have ‘raw’ sources and sources that require more understanding and skill to use and interpret accurately and responsibly. Where once we tried to make sure that the people we helped looked at footnotes and table headers so they understood statistics, now we are faced with helping people use raw data and helping them produce their own statistics. Every library will have to decide on what level of service to provide in situations like this. No library should avoid addressing the service implications of the availability of new sources of information — no matter how good or bad they are.

Legistalker

Legistalker – The latest online activity of Congress Members.

Legistalker makes it easy for you to stay on top of what your elected officials say and how they vote.

Legistalker was created by Forum One Communications as an entry for the Apps for America competition. The ever-growing database is updated every 20 seconds, and relies on data from Twitter, YouTube, Capitol Words, literally hundreds of different news sources, and others.

How to use OpenCongress.org

Have you used OpenCongress.org recently? Are you aware of all its cool features, from RSS feeds to Facebook widgets? Check it all out is this short screencast:

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