Independent Government Observers
Attending? Visit the
The Internet has created a new generation of individuals and institutes that practice the time-honored tradition of observing and reporting on the activities of government. These are reporters in the sense of court reporters, not journalists, auditors as in independent investigators rather than CPAs.
The classic independent observer is the court reporter, such as Henry Wheaton and Richard Peters, two businessmen in the early days of the Republic who took it upon themselves to collect, print, and sell the decisions of courts. Indeed, it was a business spat between those two that led to the classic pronouncement by the Supreme Court on works of government:
The Court is unanimously of opinion that no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions, and that the judges thereof cannot confer on any reporter any such right.
- Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834) [ scribd ]
Reporters and Observers of Government Are an American Institution—Come Join Us!
August 4-5, 2008
Gleacher Conference Center
University of Chicago
New Breed of Government
The new breed of government observers span all walks of life. In addition to a vibrant commercial sector, there are increasingly a number of nonprofit, academic, and individual citizen efforts.
The movement to observe the working of government extend to the legislative and executive branches as well and operate at all levels of government from municipal and special purpose local districts to the state capitols and Washington, D.C. At the local level, small businesses such as EveryBlock have taken it upon themselves to report crime, restaurant inspection, and other vital statistics.
One might argue that providing a comprehensive, archival, easy-to-use interface to the decisions and publications of government is in fact the job of government. But, transparency and sunlight not only keep our government accountable, they make it better. Independently run observers of government can make government more effective by providing:
Better Presentation. Access to crime statistics, one of the most important feeds from local government, is being provided using far more innovative and intuitive fashion by independent observers, such as Stamen Design for the City of Oakland and EveryBlock for Chicago and other cities.
A More Comprehensive Archive. The Internet Archive has been scanning millions of pages of Government Printing Office documents, digital data that the government does not possess. Likewise, the U.S. judiciary does not possess a digital archive of their own opinions, a function being provided on the Internet by a coalition of nonprofit and academic organizations with the active cooperation of several small businesses.
A More Timely Archive. Same-day summaries and timely news feeds announcing new opinions are not being provided by the courts. In the Legislative branch, far more timely information is provided by GovTrack.us, a service operated by a graduate student, than is being provided by the U.S. Congress.
More Rigorous Formatting. All too often, government publishes data in proprietary formats instead of using open industry standards that can be used with many different kinds of software. In some cases, copyright is mistakenly asserted or the public domain nature of the data is unclear. Independent observers ]can reformat data into standards such as XML allowing far more sophisticated applications to be built.
Bulk Access to Data. Government often provides data at a “retail” level, creating web sites meant to be used by end users. For example, the Government Printing Office has a site that allows a keyword search of documents such as the Federal Register and the Congressional Record, but does not provide a convenient mechanism for others to download the series in bulk to create alternative sites. Independent observers are able to repackage this information and make it available to developers for reuse without restriction.
Organization and Purpose of the IGOTF Non-Conference
In 2007, Public.Resource.Org, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit,
organized two meetings of people involved in placing
government information on-line. The first meeting took
place October 12, 2007 and brought together CEOs,
professors, and nonprofit executives involved in placing
case law on the Internet for free access. That meeting
was extremely productive in introducing players to each other in a
series of cooperative efforts.
On December 7 and 8, a 30-person meeting was called
with a broader audience of people working across local,
state, and federal levels and with all 3 branches of
branches of government. The meeting resulted in
additional cooperative efforts among numerous players
and the group was able to reach a consensus on 8
fundamental principles of open government.
These initial meetings received sponsorship support
from the Omidyar Network, the Sunlight Foundation, Yahoo!, and Google. It was
clear to the organizers that any subsequent meetings
would need an open procedure for attendance,
would need to scale up to larger number of participants,
and would require additional organizational efforts.
The results of the post-meeting assessment and
interviews with participants and potential sponsors has
led us create a more formal structure for a meeting that
can accommodate 100 delegates. We have
set out several goals for the Task Force in general and
the first meeting in particular:
- Encourage technical coordination.
- Encourage training and outreach efforts.
- Raise visibility of efforts by citizens to increase transparency of government.
Determine the need for and arrive a plan for the creation of support services, such as
scanning of archives or hosting of content.
- Determine the governance mechanism and the model for financing of future IGOTF meetings.
We call this meeting on August 4-5 a "non-conference." Unlike a conference, please do not count
on sitting in an audience and listening to speakers read slides. The two rooms will be allocated to
a series of working groups per the draft agenda below.
Draft Agenda of the IGOTF Meeting
The non-conference is structured around 3 sets of working group activities:
- Case Law (Working Group Chair: Carl Malamud, carl at media dot org). This working group
individuals groups involved in the day-to-day work of putting the courts on-line.
Topics that will be considered include markup of citations in cases, "universal resolvers"
for mapping citations to URLs, recycling of PACER and other documents, and other
subjects as appropriate.
- Municipal Governments (Working Group Chair: Daniel X. O'Neil, danx at everyblock dot com).
This group will focus on issues involved in citizens attempting to build interfaces around
municipal government data. Technical issues such as harvesting techniques and presentation
techniques will be covered, as will social issues such as negotiating for the release of
- Government and Copyright Issues (Working Group Chair: Fred Von Lohmann, fred at eff dot org).
This working group will focus on assertion of copyright by government groups.
If you would like to organize a working group, please contact carl at media dot org. If you
would like to participate in a working group, please contact the working group chairs. If you put
word "IGOTF" in your subject line, that will help us filter mail.
There is no official conference accomodation, but some people are staying at the Embassy Suites Chicago - Downtown/Lakefront
at 511 North Columbus Drive, Chicago, Illinois, 60611. The phone number is 1-312-836-5900. The
rooms are $250-$300, but many of these are 2-bedroom "suites." [Update: hotels.com apparently has better rates on that hotel than the hotel does.]
Please let us know if you discover alternative hotels.
Attending? Please .