Data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency

This morning, I gave a short talk on data journalism and the changing landscape for policy making in the age of networked transparency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC, hosted by the Commons Lab.

Video from the event is online at the Wilson Center website. Unfortunately, I found that I didn’t edit my presentation down enough for my allotted time. I made it to slide 84 of 98 in 20 minutes and had to skip the 14 predictions and recommendations section. While many of the themes I describe in those 14 slides came out during the roundtable question and answer period, they’re worth resharing here, in the presentation I’ve embedded below:

Congress passes bill to make unlocking cellphones legal, shining new sunlight on White House e-petitions

us-capitol-dome-sun

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed S.517 today, voting to send the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” that the U.S. Senate passed unanimously last week, the legislative branch completed an unprecedented democratic process: a bill that had in its genesis in a White House e-petition signed by more than 100,000 consumers was sent back to the White House for the President’s signature. If signed into law, the bill would 1) make it legal for consumers to unlock their cellphones in January 2015, reversing a controversial decision made by the Librarian of Congress in 2013 by reinstating a 2010 rulemaking and 2) direct the Librarian to consider if other mobile devices, like tablets, should also be eligible to be unlocked.

As Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s staff highlighted, the ranking members and chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees started cooperating on the issue in 2013 after the White House responded to the e-petition.

“I thank the House for moving so quickly on the bill we passed in the Senate last week and for working in a bipartisan way to support consumers,” said Leahy, in a statement. “The bipartisan Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act puts consumers first, promotes competition in the wireless phone marketplace, and encourages continued use of existing devices. Once the President signs this bill into law, consumers will be able to more easily use their existing cell phones on the wireless carrier of their choice.”

In the annals of still-embryonic American experiments in digital democracy, I can find no ready equivalent or precedent for this positive outcome for the people petitioning their government. The closest may be when the White House responded to an e-petition on the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012, taking a position on anti-piracy bills that posed a threat to online industry, security and innovation. Even then, it the voices of millions of people activated online to change Washington and the votes of members of Congress.

It’s critical to note that there’s a much deeper backstory to why activism worked: the people behind the e-petition didn’t stop with an official response from the White House. After making a lot of noise online, activists engaged Congress over a year and a half, visiting Capitol Hill, sitting in on phone calls and hearings, and being involved in the democratic process that led to this positive change.

“Many of the initial conversations on DMCA reform were engaged with the Republic Study Committee copyright memo in 2012, so it’s been a 21 month process,” said former Congressional staffer Derek Khanna, via email, “but such sea changes in policy usually take a long time, particularly if you’re confronting very powerful interests.”

Khanna, now a fellow at Yale Law School and columnist, was part of the coalition of activists advocating for this change in Congress.

“The campaign on unlocking was really trying to drive those issues and solutions through movement politics,” he said, “and that movement has succeeded in more than just the unlocking bill: now there is also the Judiciary Committee having hearings on copyright reform. The YG Network report, “Room to Grow,” also called for wholesale copyright and patent reforms and cited the RSC memo.”

This is an important lesson in why “clicktivism” alone won’t be enough to make changes to laws or regulations emanating from Washington:  people who want to shifts in policy or legislation have to learn how Congress works and act.

“A key part of our success was starting small with definable goals, and taking small successes and building upon them,” said Khanna. “Most movements throughout history have followed this strategy. Sometimes, e-campaigns shoot for the moon when the small battles have not been won yet. This is particularly a problem with tech issues. One reason why the unlocking petition was more successful than others was because it was only a tool in the toolkit. While it was ongoing, I was arguing our cause in the media, writing op-eds, meeting with Congress, giving speeches, and working with think-tanks. We basically saw the petition as energy to reinforce our message and channel our support, not the entire ballgame. Some petition campaigns fail because they assume that the petition is it: you get it to 100,000 signatures and you win or lose. Some fail because they don’t have a ground presence in Washington, DC, trying to influence the actual channels that Members of Congress and their staff follow.”

The hardest part, according to Khanna, was  keeping the momentum going after the e-petition succeeded and the White House responded, agreeing with the petitioners.

“We had no list-serve of our signatories, no organization, and no money,” he said. “It was extremely difficult. In fact, some of us were pushing for a more unified organization at the time. Others were more reluctant to go in that direction. A unified organization will be critical to future battles. Special interests were actively working against us and even derailed the original House bill after it passed Committee; having a unified organization would have helped move this process more quickly.”

That organization and DC ground game doesn’t mean that this e-petition didn’t matter: its success was a strong signal for policy makers that people cared about this issue. That’s also important: in the years since the launch of White House e-petitions in September 2011, the digital manifestation of the right of the people to “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States has come in for a lot of grief.

While White House e-petitions do sometimes work, 10% of successful e-petitions remain unanswered months or even years after they passed the threshold for a response, with activity in 2014 leading some critics to call “We the People” a “virtual ghost town.” Many of these criticisms remain founded in fact: popular epetitions do remain open. The longer these e-petitions remain open, the higher the chance that the platform will drive public disillusionment in “We the People,” not confidence that public participation of the people matters.

For instance, an e-petition on ECPA reform still sits unaddressed. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, it refers long-overdue legislative effort to make due process digital by updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require law enforcement to get a warrant before accessing cloud-based email or data of American citizens online. A majority of the U.S. House of Representatives supports ECPA reform. The White House has voiced support for “robust privacy and civil liberties protections.” The Supreme Court has made it clear that law enforcement needs a warrant to search the contents of cellphones.

In a statement published by Politico, President Obama indicated that he would make unlocking cellphones legal: “The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice so that they can find a cellphone carrier that meets their needs and their budget,” he said.

Perhaps it’s now, finally, time for the President of the United States to personally respond to a second e-petition, making it clear whether or not a constitutional law professor believes that the federal government should have to get a warrant before reading the email or personal papers of citizens stored online.

This post has been updated with a statement from the White House and comments from Derek Khanna.

DC city government issues executive order on open data, FOIA portal and chief data officer

Today, the District of Columbia launched a new online service for Freedom of Information Act requests and Mayor Vincent Gray issued a transparency, open government and open data directive. DC city government has come under harsh criticism from the ACLU for its record on FOIA and transparency and has a spate of recent corruption scandals, albeit not one that appears to be worse than other major American cities.

“This new online FOIA system is a key part of our strategy to improve government transparency and accountability,” said Mayor Gray, in a statement. “In addition, the executive order I am issuing today sends an important message to District government agencies and the public: Everyone wins when we make it easier for the public to understand the workings of the District government. I also look forward to seeing the exciting applications I hope the District’s technology community will develop with the government data we will be putting online.”

Here’s what Mayor Gray has instructed DC government to do:

1) Within 30 days from today, the DC chief technology officer (currently Rob Mancini) must create “a common Web portal” that “will serve as the source for District-wide and agency activities related to this Transparency and Open Data Directive.” Translation: OCTO must create a new website that aggregates information related to this directive.

2) OCTO will publish technical standards for open data by November 1, 2014. DC government could refer to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Guidelines as a useful reference, or the canonical 8 principles of Open Government Data.

3) Within 120 days from today, the DC City Administrator and each deputy mayor must identify at least 3 new high-value datasets to publish to the DC Data Catalog that are either not currently available or not available in an exportable format.

4) Starting on October 1, 2014, and continuing annually, each DC agency will develop and publish an “Open Government Report” that will “describe how the agency has or will enhance and develop transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Each agency shall include in its open government report a description of the information (including data) that will be made available to the public, formats in which information and data will be made.”

Translation: city agencies will report on how they’re doing complying with this mandate. Hopefully, the DC Office of Open Government will be an effective ombudsman on that progress, along with directly engaging on Freedom of Information Act disputes and processes, and will do more public engagement around open government or open data than @OCTONEWS has to date.

Unfortunately, and not a little bit ironically, the directive was published online as a scanned-in PDF that is neither searchable nor accessible to the blind, itself embodying the way not to release text online in the 21st century. Below, I have summarized the main deliverables mandated in the directive and converted the images to plain text. Following the order is criticism from open government advocate, civic hacker, and DC resident Josh Tauberer.


GOVERNMENT OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

ADMINISTRATIVE ISSUANCE SYSTEM

Mayor’s Order 2014-170
July 21, 2014

SUBJECT: Transparency, Open Government and Open Data Directive

ORIGINATING AGENCY: Office of the Mayor

By virtue of the authority vested in me as Mayor of the District of Columbia by section 422(2) and (11) of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, approved December 24, 1973, 87 Stat. 790, Pub. L. No. 93-198, D.C. Official Code § 1-204.22(2) and (11) (2012 Repl.), and section 206 of the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act, effective March 25, 1977, D.C. Law 1-96, D.C. Official Code § 2-536 (2012 Repl.), it is hereby ORDERED that:

SECTION 1: Introduction.

a. Background. The District of Columbia government (“District”) is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. Agency heads will work together and with the public to ensure public trust, and an open and effective government by establishing a system of transparency, public participation, collaboration, and accountability that increases the public’s confidence in their government. The goal of this directive is to provide a tool for prescribing and institutionalizing change within all departments and agencies.

The District has been a leader in government transparency and open data policy in the United States. In 2001, the Freedom of Information Act was amended to require that certain public records be published online. Since 2006, the District has been making data publicly available on the Internet. In January 2011, Mayor’s Memorandum 2011-1, entitled Transparency and Open Government Policy, was issued, recognizing that the District government needed to continue to proactively provide information to citizens, and thereby reduce the need for information requests. This directive implements Mayor’s Memorandum 2011-1, to require District government departments and agencies to take the following
steps to achieve the goal of creating a more transparent and open government:

b. Definitions.

  1. “Chief Data Officer” (“CDO”) means the Chief Technology Officer or a Chief Data Officer designated by the Chief Technology Officer.
  2.  “Data” means statistical, or factual, quantitative, or qualitative information that are regularly maintained or created by or on behalf of a District agency, and controlled by such agency in structured formats, including statistical or factual information about image files and geographic information system data.
  3. “Dataset” means a named collection of related records, with the collection containing data organized or formatted in a specific or prescribed way, often in tabular form.
  4. “Open Government Coordinator” means agency personnel designated by an agency head, in coordination with the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (“OCTO”) or the CDO as appropriate, to ensure that the information and data required to be published online is published and updated as required by this Order.
  5. “Protected data” means (i) any dataset or portion thereof to which an agency may deny access pursuant to the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act, effective March 25, 1977 (D.C. Law 1-96; D.C. Official Code § 2-531 et seq.)(“FOIA”), or any other law or rule or regulation; (ii) any dataset that contains a significant amount of data to which an agency may deny access pursuant to FOIA or any other law or rule or regulation promulgated thereunder, if the removal of such protected data from the dataset would impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the agency; or (iii) any data which, if disclosed on the District of Columbia Data Catalog, could raise privacy, confidentiality or security concerns or jeopardize or have the potential to jeopardize public health, safety or welfare.

C. Scope.

a. The requirements of this Order shall be applied to any District of Columbia department, office, administrative unit, commission, board, advisory committee or other division of the District government (“agency”), including the records of third party agency contractors that create or acquire information, records, or data on behalf of a District agency.

b. Any agency that is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Mayor under the Freedom of Information Act or any other law is strongly encouraged to comply with the requirements of this Order.

SECTION 2: Transparency and Open Government Policy.

a. Publish Government Information Online. To increase accountability and transparency, promote informed public participation, and create economic development opportunities, each District agency shall expand access to information by making it proactively available online, and when practicable, in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, sorted, searched, and reused by commonly used Web search applications and commonly used software to facilitate access to and reuse of information. Examples of open format include HTML, XML, CSV, JSON, RDF or XHTML. The Freedom of Information Act creates a presumption in favor of openness and publication (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions).

b. Open Government Web Portal: Within 30 days from the date of this Order, the Chief Technology Officer shall establish a common web portal that will serve as the source for District-wide and agency activities related to this Transparency and Open Data Directive. The Chief Technology Officer, in his or her discretion, may build upon an existing web portal, or may establish a new portal. Each agency shall be responsible for ensuring that the information required to be published online is accessible from the agency’s designated Open Government and FOIA webpage. The required information shall include, but is not limited to, where applicable:

  1. Means for the public to submit and track Freedom of Information Act requests online;
  2. The information required to be made public under this Directive and D.C. Official Code § 2-536, including links to:
    A. Employee salary information;
    B. Administrative staff manuals and instructions that affect the public;
    C. Final opinions and orders made in the adjudication of cases;
    D. Statements of policy, interpretations of policy, and rules adopted by the agency;
    E. Correspondence and other materials relating to agency regulatory, supervisory or enforcement responsibilities in which the rights of the public are determined;
    F. Information dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds;
    G. Budget information;
    H. Minutes of public meetings;
    I. Absentee real property owners and their agent’s names and mailing addresses;
    J. Pending and authorized building permits;
    K. Frequently requested public records; and
    L. An index to the records referred to in this section;
  3. Freedom of Information Act reports;
  4. An organizational chart or statement of the agency’s major components;
  5. Links to high-value datasets (as defined in section 3(a)(4);
  6. Public Meeting Notices and minutes required to be published under the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act; and
  7. A mechanism for the public to submit feedback on the agency’s Open Government Report or other agency actions.

c. Open Government Report. To institutionalize a culture of transparent and open government, accountability, and to expand opportunities for resident participation and collaboration, beginning October 1, 2014, and each year thereafter, each agency shall develop and publish an Open Government Report that will describe how the agency has or will enhance and develop transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Each agency shall include in its open government report a description of the information (including data) that will be made available to the public, formats in which information and data will be made available, a schedule for making the information available, the dates for which information and datasets will be updated, and contact information for agency Open Government Coordinators. The Open Government Report shall address the following topics, and be transmitted to the Mayor and Director of the Office of Open Government:

  1. Transparency: The Open Government Report shall reference statutes, regulations, policies, legislative records, budget information, geographic data, crime statistics, public health statistics, and other public records and data, and describe steps each agency has taken or will take to:A. Meet its legal information dissemination obligations under Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act;
    B. Create more access to information and opportunities for public participation; and
    C. Conduct its work more openly and publish its information online, including a plan for how each board and commission subject to the Open Meetings Act will ensure that all of its meetings are, where practicable, webcast live on the Internet.
  2. Participation: To create more informed and effective policies, each agency shall enhance and expand opportunities for the public to participate throughout agency decision-making processes. The Open Government Report will include descriptions of or plans to provide:A. Online access to proposed rules and regulations;
    B. Online access to information and resources to keep the public properly informed (such as frequently asked questions, contact information of city officials’ and departments, and other supportive content);
    C. Opportunities for the public to comment through the Web on any proposed rule, ordinance, or other regulation;
    D. Methods of identifying stakeholders and other affected parties and inviting their participation;
    E. Proposed changes to internal management and administrative policies to improve participation;
    F. Links to appropriate websites where the public can engage in the District government’s existing participatory processes;
    G. Proposals for new feedback mechanisms, including innovative tools and practices that create new and more accessible methods for public participation; and
    H. A plan that provides a timetable for ensuring that all meetings of boardsand commissions that are subject to the Open Meetings Act are webcast live and archived on the Internet.
  3. Collaboration: The Open Government Report will describe steps the agency will take or has taken to enhance and expand its practices to further cooperation among departments, other governmental agencies, the public, and non-profit and private entities in fulfilling its obligations. The Report will include specific details about:A. Proposed changes to internal management and administrative policies to improve collaboration;
    B. Proposals to use technology platforms to improve collaboration among District employees and the public;
    C. Descriptions of and links to appropriate websites where the public can learn about existing collaboration efforts; and
    D. Innovative methods, such as prizes and competitions, to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, non-profit, and academic communities.

SECTION 3: Open Data Policy.

a. Agency Requirements.

  1. Each agency shall, in collaboration with the Chief Data Officer and OCTO, make available through the online District of Columbia Data Catalog all appropriate datasets, associated extensible metadata, and associated documented agency business processes under the agency’s control. Each agency, in collaboration with OCTO, shall determine the frequency for updates to a dataset, and the mechanism to be utilized. To the extent possible, datasets shall be updated through an automated process to limit the additional burden on agency resources. The publication of an agency’s datasets shall exclude protected data.
  2. Datasets under paragraph (4) shall be made available in accordance with technical standards published by OCTO not later than November 1, 2014 that ensure that data is published in a format that is machine readable, and fully accessible to the broadest range of users, for varying purposes. Datasets shall be made available to the public on an open license basis. An open license on a dataset signifies there are no restrictions on copying, publishing, further distributing, modifying or using the data for a non-commercial or commercial purpose.
  3. For the purposes of identifying datasets for inclusion on the District of Columbia Data Catalog, each agency shall consider whether the information embodied in the dataset is (i) reliable and accurate; (ii) frequently the subject of a written request for public records of the type that a public body is required to make available for inspection or copying under FOIA; (iii) increases agency accountability, efficiency, responsiveness or delivery of services; (iv) improves public knowledge of the agency and its operations; (v) furthers the mission of the agency; or (vi) creates economic opportunity.
  4. Within 120 days of the date of this Order, the City Administrator and each Deputy Mayor shall, collaborating with their cluster agencies, and OCTO, identify at least 3 new high-value datasets to publish to the Data Catalog, in accordance with OCTO’s open data standards. The identified high-value datasets will not be currently available, or not available in an exportable format. For the purposes of this section, “high-value dataset” includes agency outcome data, agency caseload data, data reported to the federal government outcome data, agency caseload data, data reported to the federal government by the agency, agency data reported as part of the performance measurement process, and any data that is tracked by the agency that is not protected data.

b. Chief Data Officer.

  1. The Chief Technology Officer shall designate a Chief Data Officer (“CDO”) for the District of Columbia to coordinate implementation, compliance and expansion of the District’s Open Data Program, to facilitate the sharing of information between departments and agencies, and to coordinate initiatives to improve decision making and management through data analysis. The Chief improve decision making and management through data analysis. The Chief Data Officer shall report to the Chief Technology Officer.
  2. The Chief Data Officer shall:
    A. Identify points of contact, which may include agency open government coordinators within departments, on data related issues who will be responsible for leading intra-departmental open data initiatives;
    B. Emphasize the culture behind open data and the benefits to ensure that opportunities to increase efficiency through open data practices can be obtained from those with the most direct expertise;
    C. Work together with District agencies to develop a methodology and framework that supports the collection, or creation of data in a way that assists in downstream data processing and open data distribution activities;
    D. Identify and overcome challenges with agency proprietary business systems; create and/or leverage opportunities through procurement or other means to upgrade legacy systems to one of an open data architecture; and
    E. Function as a data ombudsman for the public, fielding public feedback and ensuring the policy is included into a long-term data strategy.

c. District of Columbia Open Data Catalog.

  1. A single web portal, or integrated set of websites, shall be established and maintained by or on behalf of the District of Columbia. The Chief Data maintained by or on behalf of the District of Columbia. The Chief Data Officer, in collaboration with OCTO, may build upon previous open data initiatives, or may establish a new portal for managing and delivering open data benefits to constituents.
  2. Any dataset made accessible on the District of Columbia Data Catalog shall use an open format that permits automated processing of such data in a form that can be retrieved via an open application programming interface (API), downloaded, indexed, searched and reused by commonly used web search applications and software; (ii) use appropriate technology to notify the public of updates to the data; and (iii) be accessible to external search capabilities.
  3. OCTO shall (i) post on the portal a list of all datasets available on such portal; and (ii) establish and maintain on the portal an online forum to solicit feedback from the public and to encourage public discussion on open data policies and dataset availability.

d. Open Data Legal Policy.

  1. The District of Columbia Data Catalog and all public data contained on such portal shall be subject to Terms of Use developed by OCTO. Such Terms of Use shall be posted by OCTO in a conspicuous place on the District ofColumbia Data Catalog.
  2. Public data made available on the District of Columbia Data Catalog shall be provided as a public service, on an “as is” basis. Although the District will strive to ensure that such public data are accurate, the District shall make no warranty, representation or guaranty of any type as to the content, accuracy, timeliness, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose or use of any public data provided on such portal; nor shall any such warranty be implied, including, without limitation, the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. The District shall assume no liability for any other act identified in any disclaimer of liability or indemnification provision or any other provision set forth in the Terms of Use required under subsection (d)(1) of this section.
  3. The District shall reserve the right to discontinue availability of content on the District of Columbia Data Catalog at any time and for any reason. If a dataset is made accessible by an agency on the District of Columbia Data Catalog and such agency is notified or otherwise learns that any dataset or portion thereof posted on the Data Catalog is factually inaccurate or misleading or is protected data, the agency shall, as appropriate, promptly correct or remove, or cause to be corrected or removed, such data from the Data Catalog and shall so inform the Chief Data Officer.
  4. Nothing in this Order shall be deemed to prohibit OCTO or any agency or any third party that establishes or maintains the District of Columbia Data Catalog on behalf of the District from adopting or implementing measures necessary or appropriate to (1) ensure access to public datasets housed on the Data Catalog; (ii) protect the Data Catalog from unlawful use or from attempts to impair or damage the use of the portal; (iii) analyze the types of public data on the Data Catalog being used by the public in order to improve service delivery or for any other lawful purpose; (iv) terminate any and all display, distribution or other use of any or all of the public data provided on the Data Catalog for violation of any of the Terms of Use posted on the Data Catalog pursuant to subsection (d)(1) of this section; or (v) require a third party providing the District’s public data (or applications based on public data) to the public to explicitly identify the source and version of the public dataset, and describe any modifications made to the public dataset.
  5. Nothing in this Order shall be construed to create a private right of action to enforce any provision of this Order. Failure to comply with any provision of this Order shall not result in any liability to the District, including, but not limited to, OCTO or any agency or third party that establishes or maintains on behalf of the District the Open Data Services Portal required under this Order.

Section 4. Open Government Advisory Group.

a. The Mayor shall convene an Open Government Advisory Group to be chaired and convened by the Mayor’s designee, CDO, and the Director of the Office of Open Government within the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.

b. The Open Government Advisory Group shall:

  1. Evaluate the District’s progress towards meeting the requirements of this Order and make specific recommendations for improvement; and
  2. Assist the Mayor and CDO in creating policy establishing specific criteria for agency identification of protected data in accordance with FOIA, maintenance of existing data, and the creation of data in open formats.

c. The CDO shall publish the evaluation and recommendations on the Open Government Web Portal or create an Open Government Dashboard that will provide the public with both graphic and narrative evaluation information.

Section 5: EFFECTIVE DATE:

This Order shall be effective immediately.

VINCENT C. GRAY
MAYOR

ATTEST:
CYNTHIA BR CIS-SMITH
SECRETARY OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


After the order was published online, GovTrack.us founder Josh Tauberer issued a series of critical tweets and extended his thoughts into a blog post, holding that DC city government adopted the mistakes made by the White House:

There is a strong American tradition — or at least a core American value — that the government does not get in the way of the dissemination of ideas. We don’t always live up to that ideal, but we strive for it. Access to information about the government that comes with restrictions on what we can say when we use it (e.g. attribution & explanation), a waiver of rights or a commitment to indemnify, etc. are all an anathema to accountability and transparency and respect for the public.

CFPB proposes new policy to allow consumers to share stories of woes with financial companies

cfpb complaints

As the nation’s first startup agency in more than a generation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has broken new ground in how it uses technology to create better Web products, publishes complaint data, shares software code, catalyzes innovation, uses the Internet to redesign forms, and, of course, regulates providers of consumer financial services. Now, it has floated a new proposal to create a consumer complaint database that would, for the first time, make the stories that consumers tell the regulatory agency public.

“The consumer experience shared in the narrative is the heart and soul of the complaint,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in a statement. “By publicly voicing their complaint, consumers can stand up for themselves and others who have experienced the same problem. There is power in their stories, and that power can be put in service to strengthen the foundation for consumers, responsible providers, and our economy as a whole.”

The CFPB was given authority and responsibility for handling consumer complaints regarding financial services by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, more than three years ago. Today, the CFPB released an overview of the complaints that the agency has handled since July 21, 2011,

Today, the CFPB released an overview of complaints handled since the Bureau opened on July 21, 2011. (The graphics atop this post and below are sourced from this analysis.) According to the data inside, up until June 30, 2014, the CFPB has handled approximately 395,300 consumer complaints.

complaints by product

According to the overview, the World Wide Web has been a key channel for people to file complaints to the CFPB: 56% of all consumer complaints were submitted through the CFPB’s website. 10% were submitted via telephone calls, with the balance coming in through mail, email, and fax. The rest of the report contains tables and data that breaks down complaints by type, actions taken, company responses, and consumers’ feedback about company responses.

By releasing these narratives, not just the number of complaints, the agency holds that the following benefits will accrue: more context to the complaint, specific trends in complaints, enabling consumers to make more informed decisions, and spurring competition based on consumer satisfaction. In the release announcing the proposed policy, the CFPB emphasized that consumers must opt-in to share these stories: “The CFPB would not publish the complaint narrative unless the consumer provides informed consent. This means that when consumers submit a complaint through consumerfinance.gov, they would have to affirmatively check a consent box to give the Bureau permission to publish their narrative. At least initially, only narratives submitted online would be available for the opt-in.”

Consumers could subsequently decide to withdraw their consent, resulting in the regulator removing the complaint from their website. Companies will be given the opportunity to publish a written response to the complaints that would appear next to a given consumer’s story.

The agency’s proposal states that “no personal information will be shared, stating that “complaints would be scrubbed of information such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, and other direct identifiers.”

Getting that right is important — watch for powerful financial companies, their lobbyists and sympathetic politicians to raise privacy concerns about the proposal in DC in the weeks to follow.

While it may not be apparent at first glance, however, the collection and publication of these complaints would have an important, tacit effect upon the market for financial services. By collecting, structuring and releasing consumer complaints as data, the CFPB could add crucial business intelligence into the marketplace for these services. This isn’t a novel model: the Consumer Product Safety Commission already discloses a public complaint database at SaferProducts.gov, enabling merchants and services like Consumer Products to give people crucial information about their purchases. The SEC and FINRA would be well-advised to release financial advisor data in a similar fashion. Someday, complaints submitted from mobile e-patients may have similarly powerful corrective effect in the market for health care goods and services.

FCC receives 1 million+ comments on Net Neutrality; extends Open Internet comment period until 7/16

Has the Internet showed up to comment on the Federal Communication Commission’s rulemaking around net neutrality, as I wondered when the Open Internet proceeding began? Well, yes and no. According to FCC press secretary Kim Hart, the FCC 677,000 or so total public comments on Net Neutrality submitted before tomorrow’s deadline.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Gautham Nagesh tweeted, the FCC’s action on media deregulation a decade ago received the most public comments of any of the agency’s rulemakings to date, with two million or so comments.

What this total number means in practice, however, is that network neutrality advocates have failed to stimulate public interest or engagement with this issue, despite “warnings about the FCC’s fast lane” in the New York Times. While that is in part because net neutrality is to many people a “topic that generally begets narcolepsy,” to use David Carr’s phrase, it may also be because cable, broadcast and radio news haven’t covered the issue, much less shown the email address or offered a short URL for people to officially comment. The big jump in the graphic below after June 1st can reasonably be attributed to John Oliver’s segment on this issue on his HBO show, not other media.

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That doesn’t mean that the comments haven’t flowed fast and furious at times, taking down the FCC’s ECFS system after Oliver’s show. (Shenanigans may have been at fault with the outage, too, as Sam Gustin reported at Vice.)

“During the past 60 days, the Commission has received a large number of comments from a wide range of constituents,” wrote FCC chief information officer David Bray on the FCC blog, where he reported the rate and total number of email comments on the Open Internet proceeding as open data and shared two graphics, including the one below.

Chairman Tom Wheeler and I both enthusiastically support open government and open data, so with this post I wanted to share the hourly rate of comments submitted into the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) since the start of public comments on the FCC’s Open Internet Proceeding (Proceeding 14-28). Here’s a link to a Comma Separated Values (CSV) text file providing those hourly rates for all comments submitted to ECFS and those specific to the Open Internet Proceeding; below is a graphical presentation of that same data.

I’m hoping we see the content of those public comments, too. I’ve asked.

Bray also wrote that the FCC’s inbox and (aged) public comment system will remain open and that the agency continues to “invite engagement from all interested parties.” He also indicated that the FCC will be considering ways to make it easier to third parties to scrape the comment data from the system.

The FCC IT team will also look into implementing an easier way for electronic “web scraping” of comments available in ECFS for comment downloads greater than 100,000 comments at once as we work to modernize the FCC enterprise.

The number of people submitting comments is impressive, underscoring the importance of this issue and the critical role public engagement plays in the Commission’s policy-making process. When the ECFS system was created in 1996, the Commission presumably didn’t imagine it would receive more than 100,000 electronic comments on a single telecommunications issue. Open government and open data is important to our rapidly changing times both in terms of the pace of technology advances and the tightening of budgets in government. I hope you find this information useful.

In the meantime, you have until tomorrow to participate.

UPDATE: On the afternoon of July 15th, the FCC extended the Open Internet comment period until Friday, July 18 at midnight. It appears that online interest was a large part of the decision. FCC press secretary Kim Hart:

“The deadline for filing submissions as part of the first round of public comments in the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding arrived today. Not surprisingly, we have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic on our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). Please be assured that the Commission is aware of these issues and is committed to making sure that everyone trying to submit comments will have their views entered into the record. Accordingly, we are extending the comment deadline until midnight Friday, July 18.”

If you wish to participate, learn more about the issuesee other comments and submit your own comments online atDocket 14-28 or email comments to openinternet@fcc.gov, where they will become part of the public record. Your email address will then become part of the Open Internet Rule docket.

One additional clarification from Hart, regarding the total number of comments and public access to their contents: emails are being entered into the official docket in ECFS but are not being filed individually in the docket. “A large number of them are put into a big PDF and then that single PDF is filed into ECFS, rather than filing them one by one,” she said, via email. “So they will all be in the docket, but in a couple dozen large files rather than individually. Some are already entered, but there’s a bit of a lag.”

Update: As of Wednesday morning, the FCC has received 780,000 comments on this proceeding.

Update: Per Hart, as of Thursday morning, the FCC has received a cumulative total of 968,762 comments: 369,653 to ECFS,
599,109 emails to the Open Internet inbox.

“This is the most comments the FCC has received in a rulemaking proceeding,” said Hart.

Update: As of Friday at 4 pm, 1,062,000 comments had been filed in the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding.

Statement from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler regarding this outpouring of comments:

“When the Commission launched its effort to restore Open Internet protections that were struck down in January, I said that where we end up depends on what we learn during this process. We asked the public a fundamental question: “What is the right public policy to ensure that the Internet remains open?” We are grateful so many Americans have answered our call. Our work is just beginning as we review the more than one million comments we have received. There are currently no rules on the books to protect an Open Internet and prevent ISPs from blocking or degrading the public’s access to content. There is no question the Internet must remain open as a platform for innovation, economic growth and free expression. Today’s deadline is a checkpoint, not the finish line for public comment. We want to continue to hear from you. “

Statement from FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield regarding the process for reviewing these comments:

“We appreciate the high level of public engagement on the Open Internet proceeding and value the feedback we have received. The FCC has a great deal of experience handling complicated issues that draw extensive public comment. Managing this flood of information requires a combination of good technology, good organization and good people. We are currently examining a number of approaches. The FCC will deploy staff from across many bureaus and offices who have the training, organizational expertise, and track record of success sorting through large volumes of information to ensure that we account for all views in the record.”

Update: At the close of the initial comment period of the Open Internet proceeding, the FCC had received 1,067,779 comments: 446,843 were filed through the Electronic Comment Filing System, and 620,936 through the Open Internet inbox. Now, the “reply” period begins, and will run through September 10.

Here are 5 relevant comments to reply to, for those looking for substance: Verizon, Comcast, the Internet Association, Time Warner, and AT&T.

Statement from Mark Wigfield:

“The comment and reply deadlines serve to get public input to the FCC in a timely and organized way to provide more time for analysis.

However, comments are permitted in this proceeding any time up until a week before a vote is scheduled at an Open Meeting (the “Sunshine” period under the Sunshine in Government Act). “

This post has been updated with more numbers, links and commentary, including the headline.

PCLOB issues report on U.S. government surveillance under Section 702 of FISA [UPDATED]

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The pre-release version of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s Report on the Surveillance Program Operated Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is now available online. [PDF]

Short version: The board found little legally awry with surveillance conducted under Section 702 of FISA, which permits the federal government to compel United States companies to assist them in conducting surveillance targeting foreign people and entities, noting that it was a strong, effective tool for counterterrorism. The extensive report explores the legal rationales for such surveillance and lists ten recommendations in its report. The scope of digital surveillance was detailed  in The Washington Post on Monday, which reported that only four countries in the world (the USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand and Australia) are not subject to the surveillance enabled by legal authority to intercept communications.

Context from Gregory McNeal in Forbes:

“Section 702 of FISA has not received the same level of attention as the 215 metadata collection program, largely because the program is not directly targeted at U.S. persons. However, under Section 702, the government can collect the contents of communications (for example examining email and other communications), rather than mere metadata, which it collects under Section 215.”

“702 is also a more powerful program because under it the government can collect the content of U.S. persons communications, if those persons are communicating with a foreign target. This means that U.S. persons communications can be incidentally collected by the agency, such as when two non-U.S. persons discuss a U.S. person. Communications of or concerning U.S. persons that are acquired in these ways may be retained and used by the government, subject to applicable rules and requirements. The communications of U.S. persons may also be collected by mistake, as when a U.S. person is erroneously targeted or in the event of a technological malfunction, resulting in “inadvertent” collection. In such cases, however, the applicable rules generally require the communications to be destroyed. Another circumstance where 702 collection has raised concerns is the collection of so-called “about” communication. An “about” communication is one in which the selector of a targeted person (such as that person’s email address) is contained within the communication but the targeted person is not necessarily a participant in the communication.” The PCLOB addresses each of these issues in their report.”

The PCLOB did find that “certain aspects of the program’s implementation raise privacy concerns,” specifically the “scope of the incidental collection of U.S. persons’ communications” when intelligence analysts targeted other individuals or entities.

As Josh Gerstein reported in Politico, the PCLOB “divided over key reforms to government collection of large volumes of email and other data from popular web businesses and from the backbone of the Internet. A preliminary report released Tuesday night hows that some of the proposals for changes to the Section 702 program caused a previously unseen split on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board: Two liberal members of the commission urged more aggressive safeguards, but a well-known privacy activist on the panel joined with two conservatives to withhold official endorsement of some of those changes.”

As Gerstein pointed out in a tweet, that means that reforms proposed in the House as Representatives go further than those recommended by the independent, bipartisan agency within the executive branch vested with the authority “to review and analyze actions the executive branch takes to protect the Nation from terrorism, ensuring the need for such actions is balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties” and “ensure that liberty concerns are appropriately considered in the development and implementation of laws, regulations, and policies related to efforts to protect the Nation against terrorism”

Perhaps even more problematically, the PCLOB wrote in the report that “the government is presently unable to assess the scope of the incidental collection of U.S. person information under the program.”

As Matt Sledge observed in the Huffington Post, the report’s authors “express frustration that the NSA and other government agencies have been unable to furnish estimates of the incidental collection of Americans’ communications, which ‘hampers attempts to gauge whether the program appropriately balances national security interests with the privacy of U.S. persons.’

But without signs of abuse, the board concludes privacy intrusions are justified in protecting against threats to the U.S. Nevertheless, the board suggests that the government take on the ‘backdoor searches’ that have alarmed Wyden. In those searches, the government searches through the content of communications collected while targeting foreigners for search terms associated with U.S. citizens and residents. The House voted in June to end such searches. The searches ‘push the program close to the line of constitutional reasonableness,’ the privacy board report says, but it doesn’t recommend ending them.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates issued swift expressions of dismay about the constitutionality of the surveillance and questioned the strength of the recommendations.

“The Board’s report is a tremendous disappointment,” said Nuala O’Connor, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement. “Even in the few instances where it recognizes the privacy implications of these programs, it provides little reassurance to all who care about digital civil liberties. The weak recommendations in the report offer no serious reform of government intrusions on the lives of individuals. It also offers scant support to the U.S. tech industry in its efforts to alleviate customer concerns about NSA surveillance, which continue to harm the industry in the global marketplace,” she added.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that the Board recognized that surveillance of people abroad implicates their human rights, as well as the constitutional rights of people in the U.S.,” said Greg Nojeim, director of the Center’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.  “However, the Board defers until a future date its consideration of human rights and leaves it to Congress to address the important constitutional issues.”

“If the Board’s last report on the bulk collection of phone records was a bombshell, this one is a dud,” said Kevin Bankston, policy director of New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI).

“If the Board’s last report on the bulk collection of phone records was a bombshell, this one is a dud.  The surveillance authority the Board examined in this report, Section 702 of 2008’s FISA Amendments Act, is in many ways much more worrisome than the bulk collection program.  As the Board itself explains, that law has been used to authorize the NSA’s wiretapping of the entire Internet backbone, so that the NSA can scan untold numbers of our emails and other online messages for information about tens of thousands of targets that the NSA chooses without individualized court approval.  Yet the reforms the Board recommends today regarding this awesome surveillance power are much weaker than those in their last report, and essentially boil down to suggesting that the government should do more and better paperwork and develop stricter internal protocols as a check against abuse.

“As Chief Justice Roberts said just last week, “the Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols,” they fought to require search warrants that are based on probable cause and specifically identify who or what can be searched.  Yet as we know from documents released earlier this week, government agents are searching through the data they’ve acquired through this surveillance authority–an authority that was sold to Congress as being targeted at people outside the US–tens of thousands of times a year without having to get a warrant first.

“The fact that the Board has endorsed such warrantless rummaging through our communications, just weeks after the House of Representatives voted almost three to one to defund the NSA’s “backdoor” searches of Americans’ data, is a striking disappointment.  The Board is supposed to be an independent watchdog that aggressively seeks to protect our privacy against government overreach, rather than undermining privacy by proposing reforms that are even weaker than those that a broad bipartisan majority of the House has already endorsed.

“We are grateful to the Board for its last report and are grateful to them now for laying out, in the clearest and most comprehensive way we’ve seen so far, exactly how the NSA is using its surveillance authority.  But Congress shouldn’t wait for the NSA to take the Board’s weak set of recommendations and get its own house in order.  Congress should instead move forward with strong reforms that protect our privacy and that tell the NSA, as the Supreme Court told the government last week: if you want our data you need to come back with a warrant.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was even stronger, with Cindy Cohn calling the PCLOB report “legally flawed and factually incomplete.”

Hiding behind the “complexity” of the technology, it gives short shrift to the very serious privacy concerns that the surveillance has rightly raised for millions of Americans. The board also deferred considering whether the surveillance infringed the privacy of many millions more foreigners abroad.

The board skips over the essential privacy problem with the 702 “upstream” program: that the government has access to or is acquiring nearly all communications that travel over the Internet. The board focuses only on the government’s methods for searching and filtering out unwanted information. This ignores the fact that the government is collecting and searching through the content of millions of emails, social networking posts, and other Internet communications, steps that occur before the PCLOB analysis starts.  This content collection is the centerpiece of EFF’s Jewel v. NSA case, a lawsuit battling government spying filed back in 2008.

Trevor Timm, writing in the Guardian, said the PCLOB “chickened out of making any real reform proposals” and questioned why one member of the panel didn’t support more aggressive recommendations in

“More bizarrely, one of the holdouts on the panel for calling for real reform is supposed to be a civil liberties advocate. The Center for Democracy and Technology’s vice president, James Dempsey, had the chance to side with two other, more liberal members on the four-person panel to recommend the FBI get court approval before rummaging through the NSA’s vast databases, but shamefully he didn’t.

Now, as the Senate takes up a weakened House bill along with the House’s strengthened backdoor-proof amendment, it’s time to put focus back on sweeping reform. And while the PCLOB may not have said much in the way of recommendations, now Congress will have to. To help, a coalition of groups (including my current employer, Freedom of the Press Foundation) have graded each and every representative in Washington on the NSA issue. The debate certainly isn’t going away – it’s just a question of whether the public will put enough pressure on Congress to change.”

Editor’s note: This post has been substantially rewritten. More statements were added, and the headline has been amended.

[REPORT] On data journalism, democracy, open government and press freedom

On May 30, I gave a keynote talk on my research on the art and science of data journalism at the first Tow Center research conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. I’ve embedded the video below:

My presentation is embedded below, if you want to follow along or visit the sites and services I described.

Here’s an observation drawn from an extensive section on open government that should be of interest to readers of this blog:

“Proactive, selective open data initiatives by government focused on services that are not balanced by support for press freedoms and improved access can fairly be criticized as “openwashing” or “fauxpen government.”

Data journalists who are frequently faced with heavily redacted document releases or reams of blurry PDFs are particularly well placed to make those critiques.”

My contribution was only one part of the proceedings for “Quantifying Journalism: Metrics, Data and Computation,” which you can catch up through the Tow Center’s live blog or TechPresident’s coverage of measuring the impact of journalism.

Obama administration announces new initiatives to release and apply open energy data

As part of today’s Energy DataPalooza, the White House published a blog post and fact sheet that detailed new initiatives and data releases. Here’s the rundown, all quoted right from the document:

  • The Department of Energy announced that its Buildings Performance Database has exceeded a milestone of 750,000 building records, making it the world’s largest public database of real buildings’ energy performance information.
  • The Energy Department launched a SunShot Catalyst prize challenge
  • The Department of Energy launched a National Geothermal Data System, a “resource that contains enough raw geoscience data to pinpoint elusive sweet spots of geothermal energy deep in the earth, enabling researchers and commercial developers to find the most promising areas for geothermal energy. Access to this data will reduce costs and risks of geothermal electricity production and, in turn, accelerate its deployment.
  • The Department of Energy released a study “which identified 65-85 gigawatts of untapped hydropower potential in the United States. Accompanying the release of this report, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has released detailed data resulting from this study.”
  • Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz announced that WattBuddy won the Department of Energy’s “Apps for Energy” contest, the second part of its year-long American Energy Data Challenge.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT), “a free software tool designed to help state and local air quality planners evaluate county-level emissions displaced at electric power plants by efficiency and renewable energy policies and programs.”
  • 7 new utilities and state-wide energy efficiency programs adopted the Green Button standard, including Seattle City Light, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Green Mountain Power,  Wake Electric, Hawaiian Electric Company, Maui Electric Company, Hawai’i Electric Light Company, and Hawaii Energy.
  • Pivotal Labs collaborated with NIST and EnergyOS to create OpenESPI, an open source implementation of the Green Button standard.
  • 7 electric utilities “agreed to the development and use of a voluntary open standard for the publishing of power outage and restoration information.  The commitment of utilities to publish their already public outage information as a structured data in an easy-to-use and common format, in a consistent location, will make it easier for a wide set of interested parties—including first responders, public health officials, utility operations and mutual assistance efforts, and the public at large—to make use of and act upon this important information, especially during times of natural disaster or crisis.” iFactor Consulting will support it and, notably, Google will use the data in its Crisis Maps.
  • Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C. will use the Department of Energy’s open source Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) platform to publish data collected through benchmarking disclosure of building energy efficiency.

Harvard Law study finds Supreme Court editing its decisions without notice

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This morning, Adam Liptak reported at the New York Times that the Supreme Court has been quietly editing its legal decisions without notice or indication. According to Richard J. Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard Liptak interviewed about a new study examining the issue, these revisions include “truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning.”

The court does warn readers that early versions of its decisions, available at the courthouse and on the court’s website, are works in progress. A small-print notice says that “this opinion is subject to formal revision before publication,” and it asks readers to notify the court of “any typographical or other formal errors.”

But aside from announcing the abstract proposition that revisions are possible, the court almost never notes when a change has been made, much less specifies what it was. And many changes do not seem merely typographical or formal.

Four legal publishers are granted access to “change pages” that show all revisions. Those documents are not made public, and the court refused to provide copies to The New York Times.

The Supreme Court secretly editing the legal record seems like a big deal to me. (Lawyers, professors, court reporters, tell me I’m wrong!)
To me, this story highlights the need for and, eventually the use of data and software to track the changes in a public, online record of Supreme Court decisions.

Static PDFs that are edited without notice, data or indication of changes doesn’t seem good enough for the legal branch of a constitutional republic in the 21st century.

Just as the U.S. Code, state and local codes, are being constantly being updated and consulted by lawyers, courts and the people, the Supreme Court’s decisions could be published and maintained online as a body of living legislation at SupremeCourt.gov so that they may be read and consulted by all.

Embedded and integrated into those decisions and codes would be a record of the changes to them, the “meta data” of the actions of the legislative organ of the republic.

What you’ll find now at SupremeCourt.gov is a significant improvement over past years. Future versions, however, might be even better.

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