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Open government requires accessibility, not just data, specialists say, By Joseph Marks, NextGov (05/11/2011).
The State Department website, for example, doesn’t have a link for passport information on its homepage, even though the largest share of people visiting the site are there for that reason….
About a quarter of the Agriculture Department’s home page is taken up by a graphic celebrating the 50th anniversary of the department’s Economic Research Service … even though that’s likely not a major reason people visit the site.
Sunlight has a story about the government’s Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) website that came online April 18th.
- The Worst Government Website We’ve Ever Seen?, by Tom Lee, Sunlight Foundation Blog (April 19, 2011).
Contracting databases are part of the world of procurement, procurement is heavily influenced by the Defense Department, and DoD has a proud heritage of producing websites so ugly that they make you want to claw out your eyes. So FAPIIS has company. But if this was just a question of aesthetics, we wouldn’t be complaining.
Assuming you’re using one of the few web browsers in which the site works at all (Chrome and Safari users are out of luck), the experience is off-putting from the start, as users are warned that their use of the site may be monitored, surveilled, or otherwise spied upon (you don’t necessarily surrender your right to speak privately to your priest by using the website, though–thanks for clearing that up, guys!). Perhaps this is why their (arguably superfluous) SSL certificate is utterly broken….
Among other things, Tom notes that the site uses “CAPTCHA.”
[T]he use of a captcha to gate government data is outrageous. Government should be making its data more accessible and more machine-readable. Captchas are designed to interfere with automated tools that facilitate malicious acts. But downloading government data is decidedly not a malicious act. Why are we trying to limit machines’ ability to use this data?
In an interesting court decision, a federal judge ruled last week that some federal agencies had wrongly turned over information in unsearchable PDF files. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, “is regarded as an expert on electronic discovery issues, having written three books on the subject.”
In addition, the judge ruled that the agency must produce requested requested metadata such as the date files were created and modified.
- Federal judge says unsearchable PDFs ‘not sufficient disclosure’, by Wendell Cochran, Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University School of Communication (Feb. 8, 2011)
Although this is surely not the last word in either this particular case or in case law in general on these issues, it is a significant step. It demonstrates that the courts are beginning to recognize that simple “access” to “information” is not sufficient any more. Information must be provided in formats that enable its use and re-use. In this particular case, plaintiffs had requested spreadsheets and received instead simple images of pages or “screen shots.”
This is relevant to the dissemination of all government information. Governments must make their information not just accessible and viewable, but usable and re-usable. Perhaps more case law will help persuade agencies of the need to produce information originally in open, re-usable, and therefore preservable, digital formats.
Hat tip to Kevin Taglang!