Of mind blowers and mind readers

I know you didn’t ask but I’m going to tell you anyway: I had a fantastic weekend.

Last Friday & Saturday, I participated in the Texas Government 2.0 Camp – also known as Txgov2.0. – and got so much out of the experience. Besides meeting a slew of very interesting people (fellow state employees and others), I was exposed to so many good ideas that my head is still dizzy from all the thinking and my fingers are still tired from all the typing. The event’s primary focus was on open government with an emphasis on data transparency and citizen engagement.

Rather than cramming miles of notes into a single blog post, I’ll just share the highlights.

Best quote:  “Access to data is seldom the problem; locating the needle in the haystack and then understanding what you have found are the real challenges.” A panel of LBJ School students conducted a survey as part of their research on data accessibility and this quote came from one of their respondents. Their presentation pointed out that data scarcity is very often not the problem and that many organizations provide a firehose of data that is so poorly formatted and organized that the information cannot be found or used.

Best observation: The students mentioned above pointed out that there is a disconnect between:

  • the information government thinks is relevant / the information people want, and
  • what people understand / what analysts are producing

Newsflash: government isn’t a mind reader.

Best list: Evan Smith, CEO & editor of the Texas Tribune, stated the 5 principles of open government

  1. Mindset: All the information in the public sphere belongs to citizens who paid for it and are entitled to it.
  2. Make it easy: The data should be easy to find, easy to understand and easy to manipulate. According to him, government agencies are so “dumbshit” about data that they share entire databases in PDF format, rendering the data unusable.
  3. Visualize: A sheet-full of numbers isn’t as compelling as a well-designed graphic or a story that puts the information in context.
  4. Collaborate: Competition is a luxury government cannot afford.
  5. Share: Information shouldn’t sit idly on websites, waiting for people to come to it. It should be pushed and distributed through various means including social media. This data should also be device and format agnostic.

Best encouragement: Dustin Haisler, of Spigit and known for his work for the City of Manor, acknowledged that the road to transparency is long and that the to-do list to get there can be overwhelming. With that in mind, his best way to get started is to “start small” with the most requested information using its existing format.

Best formatting adviceJon Lee, from the Texas Department of Information Resources, warned the audience against stale government reports with rigid structures that bury meaning in a sea of information. He showed us an example of a report he worked on and asked which title sounded more appealing:

  1. 2011 Biennial Performance Report for Information Resources, or
  2. Top 11 IT Strategies Affecting Texas Agencies

Making reports more content-driven and less formal is another way to be open and transparent to the public. There shouldn’t be any barriers to making the most valuable information rise to the top.

Best tone advice: Steven Polunsky, a participant in an “unconference” session on social media, would like government institutions to “Give me information but don’t sound like my mom”. He’s right, there is a fine line between being relevant and annoying.

Best compliment: A participant in an “unconference” session on state data (an employee of the railroad commission I think) was complaining about how too many state agency websites are organized politically with information aligned with their org charts. He then pointed out how the website of the agency I work (and which I helped design) is structured differently by putting the needs of the user first.

Best omission: I can’t remember anyone mentioning the need to write in Plain English instead of jargonese and bureaucratese. Using simple language that a 6th grader can understand is key to ensure the information can be understood by everyone.

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