Digital Democracy: The World Wide Web Consortium weighs in on government transparency

Sep 24, 2009
Image: Christine Daniloff

(PhysOrg.com) -- On May 21, the day the White House unveiled its Open Government Initiative, it also launched the website data.gov, which put information like Medicare cost reports, residential energy consumption and state-by-state toxicity reports online. Finding new technical means to make data accessible is central to the Obama administration's plans for increasing government transparency, and as those plans unfold, the administration will have growing support from the World Wide Web Consortium's eGovernment interest group.

MIT's Computer Science and Laboratory (CSAIL) is one of three hosts worldwide for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops and approves the technical standards for the web: it's the organization that gave the world the markup languages html and xml, among other, more exotic standards. Two years ago, it created the eGovernment group to investigate ways in which Web technologies can give citizens greater access to government, considering questions like how to verify the identity of people accessing personal data on government websites, what media should be used to disseminate what information, and how to enable people with disabilities access to government sites.

Now, however, the group is redrawing its charter to focus on a single question: how best to put government data online. A draft of the new charter has been posted on the W3C website and is open for public comment until Monday.

"I have a great deal of respect for the W3C," says Aneesh Chopra, who was confirmed as the United States' first chief technology officer in August. "Its contributions to advance the president's Open Government Initiative are both useful and a good source of feedback to ensure we are delivering to the best of our ability on the president's vision."

Unlike most of the W3C's other groups, the eGovernment group isn't developing new standards. But according to Sandro Hawke, the group's technical lead, it is drawing on W3C's contacts in both industry and government and its expertise in facilitating conversation. "They have been wonderful about really galvanizing volunteers and creating ways to usefully organize the work," says Beth Noveck, Chopra's deputy for open government, "where their know-how about process as well as their know-how about the substantive things is very useful."

The eGovernment group has about 200 participants representing roughly a dozen U.S. federal agencies, governments in South America, Africa, Europe, and Oceania, international development organizations, and major manufacturers of computer software and hardware. About a quarter of those participants have joined in the last week, as the group has been trying to build momentum behind its new charter.

The group signaled its change of direction in early September, however, when it posted a first draft of its guidelines for publishing government data. The draft also has an associated wiki page, where group members can propose revisions online. "In working on plans for the open-government directive," says Noveck, "I've read through their work more than once, because it's evolved and changed over time and gotten additional contributions."

Brass tacks

The document advises governmental organizations not to worry, initially, about making data pretty for online presentation but simply to post them in their raw form-preferably a "structured" form, where, at the very least, columns and rows of data are labeled. "You don't turn a spreadsheet into a PDF and then send the PDF unless you want to make sure that someone can't get at the numbers," says Hawke. "It's the kind of thing someone might do to dodge the mandate, if the mandate is to put data online."

The logic behind this and many of the group's other recommendations is that posting machine-readable data now is more useful than posting human-readable data later. That's because machine-readable data, however chaotic to the human eye, gives hundreds of millions of interested parties the chance to create programs that mine it, recombine it, and present it in any way they see fit. That, the W3C believes, will yield useful results more quickly than the labor of a small team of overworked developers trying to predict how the data will be used and designing accordingly.

Indeed, making data on the web machine-readable is the overarching goal of the W3C as a whole. The html and xml standards are well established; the W3C is working now on the standards that will define the so-called . If the current web is like a disk full of word-processing documents-you can either summon a page by its name or search for words it contains-the Semantic Web would be like a database, where every item of information is categorized, and new queries can combine categories in any imaginable way.

The W3C has published several Semantic Web standards, and while they have a few high-profile adopters-the New York Times, for instance, has said that it will use Semantic Web technologies to organize its entire archive of articles-they are by no means widely used. Although the eGovernment group's shift of focus is too recent for it to have settled on any long-term research projects, Hawke predicts that its members will want to develop demonstrations that show how useful Semantic Web standards can be in organizing government data.

"What people have referred to a few times as the killer app for data is just localizing everything," says Hawke. "Right now, all the data flows to Washington and then sits there." But with Semantic Web technologies, he says, local communities could build applications that automatically pull together data from the scattered web sites of different federal agencies, Congressional or Senate committees or subcommittees, and courts and "let people see anytime a regulation is coming along that is actually going to affect their neighborhood or job status."

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news : web)

Explore further: MIT groups develop smartphone system THAW that allows for direct interaction between devices

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Capitalising on richer Web data

Jan 04, 2005

A quiet revolution is coming our way. Recent successful trials of European semantic-Web applications suggest that machine-readable data will soon usher in an improved Web that will facilitate information reuse, and provid ...

Sensoring the World Wide Web

Apr 15, 2009

CSIRO scientists will lead an international initiative to develop standards for sharing information collected by sensors and sensor networks over the Internet.

New Web site 'drills down' into government standards

Mar 10, 2005

Protracted and, sometimes, fruitless searches for government-applied technical standards may soon be a thing of the past. A new Web site, Standards.Gov, provides businesses, other organizations and interested citizens with ...

White House launches open government initiative

May 21, 2009

The White House invited ordinary Americans on Thursday to contribute ideas on making government more open and unveiled a new website where raw federal data will be put online for public use.

W3C releases mobile site practices

Jun 28, 2006

Mobile content far beyond ringtones and wallpapers is on its way with the recent release of guidelines for designers of Web sites solely for the mobile phone.

Recommended for you

Computerized emotion detector

Sep 16, 2014

Face recognition software measures various parameters in a mug shot, such as the distance between the person's eyes, the height from lip to top of their nose and various other metrics and then compares it with photos of people ...

Cutting the cloud computing carbon cost

Sep 12, 2014

Cloud computing involves displacing data storage and processing from the user's computer on to remote servers. It can provide users with more storage space and computing power that they can then access from anywhere in the ...

Teaching computers the nuances of human conversation

Sep 12, 2014

Computer scientists have successfully developed programs to recognize spoken language, as in automated phone systems that respond to voice prompts and voice-activated assistants like Apple's Siri.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ZenaV
not rated yet Sep 25, 2009
We need some computer cops and some computer lawyers so we can sue the crap out of websites that violates the Free Speech of America or teach the Americans that any website that does is an American enemy and should be investigated by Homeland Security. And mainly refusing to sign up for any that says it does NOT have free speech they are no good and just has an agenda to violate or soak a user with lies and propaganda.
SDMike
1 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2009
Too bad Obama doesn't apply transparency to his own past, to his own friends, to appointee's tax records, to the number of Czars, ....

Obama, the LEAST transparent US president.