New Open Data Rules Continue Push for Government Innovation

low power

FCC Visualization of Low Power FM Availability, built on open data and explained on GitHub.

Today, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy jointly released a new Open Data Policy directing agencies to implement specific structural reforms. In conjunction with an Executive Order prioritizing open and machine readable government information, these adjustments are forward looking and exciting. They speak to a general understanding that a deliberate approach to the way that data are processed and released can exponentially enhance their value.

Continue reading “New Open Data Rules Continue Push for Government Innovation”


UPDATE: After Arrest, Authorities Caution Against Crowdsourced Criminal Intelligence Analysis

During last week’s frenzied pursuit of suspects after the Boston Marathon bombings, we commented on the danger of attempting to crowdsource a criminal investigation. After Friday’s arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, new information on how law enforcement located the suspect has shed light on the process. Despite good intentions, intelligence analysis of this type is a poor fit for untrained amateurs. From the Washington Post:

[T]he social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.

On an investigative forum of, since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.

“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”

The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”

In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social mediacomplicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.

Fortunately, the suspect was apprehended and critiques of Reddit’s investigative techniques were swift and emphatic. But this could have easily gone much worse. This experience provides an example of where the wisdom of the crowd can be anything but wise.

The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Limitations of Crowdsourced Intelligence

In the wake of the horrific bombings at this week’s Boston Marathon, a complex web of agencies has been furiously searching for suspects. Intelligence analysis is already a challenge, and attempting to identify suspects at a massively popular public event is even more difficult. Eager to scoop this major story, news outlets have repeatedly “broke” pieces on suspects only to retract them quickly. The paucity of information has been exacerbated by dubious crowd-based efforts to aid the search.

Popular news aggregator Reddit quickly created a subReddit entitled “FindBostonBombers,” inviting community members to share information and photos of the scene before, during and after the explosions. While the forum contains multiple disclaimers discouraging racism and posting of personal information, the limitations of this type of analysis quickly became apparent. These well-intentioned efforts have led to multiple false positives, and major outlets who eagerly seized the opportunity to beat the rush have been forced to back off: the “person of interest” was in fact a local high school student. Continue reading “The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Limitations of Crowdsourced Intelligence”

GovLoop Interview with Zack Bastian on IT Reform

As the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee starts looking at federal IT reform, please take a few minutes to check out the Commons Lab’s recent work on the issue. Chris Dorobek of DorobekINSIDER recently interviewed the Commons Lab’s Zachary Bastian on the issues surrounding Federal IT reform. Check it out here. You can also read Zack’s paper Too Big to Succeed on Scribd. And don’t forget to check out our post by Ben Balter on the vital IT reform issue of agile development.

Federal Agility: A Cultural Solution to a Technical Problem

Editor’s note: In our recently posted transitional briefToo Big to Succeed, we called attention to agile development as an opportunity for cost savings and improved outcomes. This week, we dive deeper in the topic with guest blogger Benjamin Balter

As the talks surrounding the fiscal cliff have illustrated, never before has it been so vital that the federal government do more with less. Across the District, government agencies are tightening their belts considerably, but the challenge is not simply about trimming budgets or spending less. In many cases, the problem is a matter of spending smarter.

While the federal information technology (IT) infrastructure is beginning to show its age — losing its ability to serve federal employees and thus more broadly the American public — federal approaches to IT procurement and management are increasingly proving themselves to be equally anachronistic. Traditional heavyweight philosophies known most commonly as waterfall development simply move too slowly for today’s quickly changing federal IT landscape. By the time projects reach completion, all too often, the underlying technology has evolved or the customer’s needs have fundamentally changed. As a result, what is delivered often does not even resemble what is ultimately needed. If we wish to create the efficient government of the 21st century, we must jettison traditional approaches to IT project management and adopt a more agile philosophy.

Continue reading “Federal Agility: A Cultural Solution to a Technical Problem”

Too Big to Succeed: The Need for Federal IT Reform

The following is part of a special series of policy briefs by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars running until inauguration day. This piece, written by Commons Lab Early Career Scholar Zachary Bastian, tackles the need for reform in federal information technology.

As the world has become more dependent on information technology (IT), so has the federal government and its constituencies. Leveraged effectively, technical tools can engage the public, create cost savings, and improve outcomes. These benefits are obscured by regular reminders that federal IT is fundamentally flawed. It is too big to succeed. For IT to become sustainable, the federal government must enable change in three categories: 1) embracing agile development, modular contracting, and open-source software, 2) prioritizing small business participation, and 3) shifting the federal IT culture towards education and experimentation. The adoption of these reforms is vital. The current state of federal IT undermines good work through inefficiency and waste.

Click here to read the remainder of this brief on Scribd.

Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers

Editor’s note: This guest blog is by Edward S. Robson, Esq.

In the past I have written about the tort liability that digital volunteers face when making responses.  In addition to a number of other strategies, one method for reducing liability is to obtain indemnification from the governmental agency or NGO requesting the services of the digital volunteers.

First, a few words about indemnification: This means to require a requestor to pay any expenses or awards associated with the claims brought against digital volunteers as a result of their work for the requesting party.  If a member of a digital volunteer group negligently released information causing a disaster victim to be injured, the requesting agency would be contractually required to pay attorney’s fees incurred in defense, or any awards.  An indemnification agreement would not necessarily cover all conduct of digital volunteers, including acts of gross negligence or recklessness.

To obtain indemnification, groups need an agreement with the party requesting service.  The agreement need not be actively negotiated but could be contained in an online activation request.  The acceptance of terms and conditions, including acceptance of indemnification, would be a prerequisite for submission of an activation request.

Many groups are developing activation protocols or criteria for determining which calls for assistance they will answer.  The willingness of a requestor to indemnify a group and its members seems a logical criterion for separating the sometimes overwhelming requests for help.  It could provide a layer of confidence for digital volunteers and encourage action. Continue reading “Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers”

Maps Aren’t Paintings: A Discussion About Data Licenses

When it comes to open-source map data, licenses like the one used by collaborative mapping group OpenStreetMap (OSM) are important. They ensure that anyone can use the map data in a commercial or non-commercial capacity, as long as the user provides the proper attribution and releases any improved data under similar circumstances.

When OSM began looking at its licensing arrangement over the past few years, the issues generated a surprising amount of discussion for what may be seen by many as a pretty dry legal topic. On April 1, OSM switched from its Creative Commons license to a new open Open Database License, which affords better protection for information in databases.

Kate Chapman, treasurer of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has written about the issue on her blog and took a few minutes to talk to Communia over email about the change, how it’s working out and what digital volunteers should remember when collecting and creating data.

How/why is licensing an issue for groups working with OSM data?

OSM was founded on the idea that most “free” maps are not actually free. There are many maps that are free to use, but only in specific ways. There is other information that is not available at all for certain regions or types of data or groups of people.

In OSM, we think that free maps can only be truly free only if they comply with the Open Knowledge Definition (OKD). The OKD imposes general conditions on knowledge so it can be used by anyone, anywhere, for anything.

But believing in the concept of openness is not enough to guarantee it. In the case of OSM, we enforce a license (either CC-by-sa or ODbL) to guarantee that anyone, anywhere, will be able to use OSM data for anything. Both these licenses can be summarized in two points:

Attribution: Give credit where credit is due.
Share-alike: Allow others to use your data as you are allowed to use OSM data.

What does this mean to groups working with OSM data? Two things: Please put “Data © OpenStreetMap and Contributors” somewhere in the small print. If you improve the OpenStreetMap data, then you must make it available back to the community. Continue reading “Maps Aren’t Paintings: A Discussion About Data Licenses”

Lawmakers Take Closer Look at DHS’ Social Media Monitoring

There have not been many unifying issues for House Republicans and Democrats this congressional session. But, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, members of both parties took time at a Feb. 16 hearing to raise concerns with officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the agency’s approach to social media monitoring.

The House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism panel held the hearing, which sought to examine the intersection between DHS’ monitoring of social media channels and online news for real-time information on disasters and ensuring privacy for users of Twitter, Facebook and myriad other online forums.

Panel chair Patrick Meehan (R-PA) said while he understood the need for DHS to glean real-time situational awareness from social networks during a natural disaster or terrorist attack, he raised questions about the agency creating a “chilling effect” on free speech by also collecting information on the political opinions. In particular, Meehan raised concerns about DHS plans to collect information on the opinions of private citizens on government actions, including the views of Minnesota residents on plans to relocate prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the state.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), the panel’s ranking member, echoed Meehan’s concerns. “How can DHS fully exploit the benefits and opportunities of social media without impeding on the civil rights and civil liberties of those who choose to use social media?” she asked in her opening statement. “Can DHS actively and effectively monitor social media in an open and above board way without being accused of spying on lawful activities?” Continue reading “Lawmakers Take Closer Look at DHS’ Social Media Monitoring”

Nader, Onassis, and Jones: Privacy in Public and Limits on the Private Sector

The GPS case – the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones – raises a whole host of issues about privacy in public. The case was about the Fourth Amendment and the government’s ability to follow individuals on public roads. Of the three opinions in the case, that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s was the most interesting and, potentially, the furthest reaching.

Sotomayor asked “whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the Government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.” Sotomayor and all the other justices found limits in the Fourth Amendment. I want to look more broadly.

The Fourth Amendment establishes the boundary for government action, but it does not constrain the private sector. What happens if the government cannot follow people because of Fourth Amendment restrictions but the private sector can? After all, what good is the Fourth Amendment if a private company can follow you down every street and sell the information to marketers, profilers, and government agencies too?

Sotomayor raised this question indirectly when she questioned existing case law that holds that an individual has no expectation of privacy in information given to banks and other third parties:

More fundamentally, it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. E.g., [Smith v. Maryland442 U.S. 735, 742 (1979)] United States v. Miller, 425 U. S. 435, 443 (1976). This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.

Many in the privacy community stood up and cheered when reading these words. Privacy advocates were critical of the Miller decision from the start. Much more so than in 1976 when the Court decided Miller, we live in a world where much of our personal information is held by third parties, including banks, schools, utilities, supermarkets, credit bureaus, credit grantors, and Internet providers of goods and services. Many of us live our lives on the Internet and in the cloud. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, EBay, and other companies have our aggregated, detailed data in their files. The issues here are major, and I need to shed complex issues cavalierly as we proceed.

Continue reading “Nader, Onassis, and Jones: Privacy in Public and Limits on the Private Sector”