Friday, December 11, 2009

Information Technology Principles for Open Government

Guest Blogger

Laura DeNardis
Executive Director, Yale Information Society Project

Citizen access to government information is a necessary condition of a free society. In the 21st century this access primarily takes place online, a phenomenon that increases prospects for an informed citizenry but also enables more direct citizen participation in government processes and a wide range of activities including citizen journalism, technological innovation, and scientific research.

In an important step toward greater government openness, the Obama administration this week released its Open Government Directive calling upon federal agencies to take a number of concrete steps to increase online access to government data. Among other things, the directive establishes a deadline of 45 days for agencies to publish in an open format "at least three high-value data sets" not previously online and to register these data sets via For anyone interested, the Sunlight Foundation reorganized the Administration's directive into a convenient timeline checklist.

Even while welcoming this announcement, some have noted remaining open issues such as how to address possible policy barriers to openness (e.g. the Paperwork Reduction Act). On his first day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum committing his administration to providing unprecedented levels of openness. This week's Open Government Directive gives some teeth to this commitment despite any questions yet to be answered.

I would like to open a discussion of a closely related topic. The Open Government Directive calls for openness and transparency of data but to a certain extent leaves the issue of openness and transparency in the underlying technologies for another day. Because of the integral role of technologies in democratic processes, technologies of open government should meet the same principles of openness, transparency, and participation required of open government data itself.

The Yale Information Society Project, an intellectual center and think tank at Yale Law School, has developed some draft guiding principles for the technologies of open government. Previous recommendations about open government principles have focused on the data rather than on characteristics of the underlying technical architecture that delivers open government data. For example, thirty open government advocates gathered in 2007 to develop a set of principles of open government data. Some Fellows of the Yale Information Society Project met to quickly draft some initial guiding principles for the technologies of open government and would like to issue a request for comments on these draft principles.


Developed by the Information Society Project at Yale Law School

ACCESSIBILITY - Access to government information should be available to all regardless of disability, socioeconomic status, position, ethnicity, age, or other characteristic and should be accessible in all parts of the country by any Internet device, easy to search, find, and use, and easily translatable into a wide variety of formats. The government should impose no fees for accessing government records and impose no proprietary controls over use of the data by the public.

INFORMATION DIVERSITY - Open government information should not only include alphanumeric text but also the audio, video, and image records that are now a routine part of 21st century government operations and public records. Technical architectures must be capable of supporting these multimedia norms and must ensure that the information will survive and be accessible in the future.

PRIVACY - Technologies of open government should protect human dignity, autonomy, and privacy by providing individuals with control over the collection, use, accuracy, and distribution of their personal information and by protecting the anonymity of those who access publicly available government databases. Access to open government data should be available without formal registration or technological tracking.

SECURITY - Technologies of open government should incorporate security features to ensure the integrity of data, to prevent unauthorized tampering or interception of information, and to provide means for authenticating data.

FREEDOM TO INNOVATE - Technologies should be sufficiently open and flexible so that others may innovate on top of them and reuse and redistribute the information on new devices, applications, and platforms.

INTEROPERABILITY - Government infrastructure should include open standards that promote software and protocol interoperability, promote civic engagement in and public accountability over technologies, and that improve competitiveness and innovation in I.T.

TRANSPARENCY - The government should make public not only government information but also information concerning the technological architecture supporting public data and the means by which those technologies were selected.

* * * * *

All comments invited and welcome. The Yale ISP is interested in the possibility of collaborating with open government scholars and advocates to improve these principles, to explore each principle in greater depth and to enter specific policy conversations about technologies of open government.

Hopefully, this draft list of principles will open a discussion about how to reflect values of openness, participation, and transparency not only in government data access but also in the underlying technologies of open government.

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