Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 2

2. Eat Your Own Dog Food

“Eating your own dog food” is a software developers’ term for using the product that you make. A developer who uses her own software day in and day out will become aware of all the problems users encounter, and will be more motivated to fix them. But the federal government has generally not let citizens engage with the same databases it maintains for its own use. Instead it released special data sets for public engagement, which are often low quality. As one user put it:

“The kaleidoscope of data formats in open data portals like data.gov might politely be called ‘obscure’, and perhaps more accurately, ‘perversely unusable’. Some of the data hasn’t been updated since first publication, and is quite positively too stale to use. If documentation exists, most of the time it’s incomprehensible.”[1]

A government leader who wants meaningful citizen engagement will assure that when her agency’s data systems are created or upgraded, they are built to allow sharing with citizens. This will require that each type of data in the system (i.e., each field) is tagged as to whether it can be shown to the public or must be blocked due to personal privacy, commercial trade secrets, public safety, etc. Making the protection for each type of data explicit will be a big change for agencies who practice “security through obscurity”; that is, making it difficult for citizens to obtain agency information in general, or even to know what information the agency has, on the rationale of protecting the specific pieces of information that should not be released.

Meaningful engagement with government data also requires that citizens can access it in a way that is useful for doing analysis or building services. Making data available as images of printed reports doesn’t meet this requirement, nor do government web sites that only allow users to manually enter searches to obtain a few records at a time. One approach that works is letting citizens download the complete data file, a feature called “bulk download”. A more sophisticated approach is for the government database to provide an application programming interface (API), which allows citizen-built applications to search and retrieve from the database over the internet without any manual steps.

When a government leader makes her agency’s databases shareable with citizens, this will also make the databases more reliable for the agency. Systems that rely on security by obscurity are vulnerable to data breaches. Systems that are poorly documented and use non-standard data formats hold the agency hostage to one or a few individuals who can make them work. Citizens who want to engage with the agency’s data are free consultants to report these problems, if a government leader is willing to listen.

[Next week we will post Part 3: Don’t Panic about Guerrilla Government. You can find the complete paper at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

Footnotes

[1] Anthea Watson Strong, “Hey Uncle Sam, Eat Your Own Dogfood — TheLi.st @ Medium — Medium,” Medium, September 25, 2014, https://medium.com/@antheaws/hey-uncle-sam-eat-your-own-dogfood-9f0c110c13c8.

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