Open House thoughts, Open Senate direction

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Josh Tauberer

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Nov 22, 2008, 8:28:32 PM11/22/08
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Hey, everyone. Already the election seems long ago...

Anyway. If we're going to get back to this Open Senate thing, I thought
it would be good to first have a discussion about the good and bad of
the Open House Project and see what we might do differently for Open
Senate. It'd be great if you have some thoughts if you'd post them here.

One of the ways I think OHP and OSP are important is that they document
the current state of affairs. We got a pretty good snapshot in time of
the leading technological and transparency issues before the House. It
puts us on a good footing to argue for change when we document, in a
professional way, what the state of affairs is, and, at least for me, it
helped to bring out the bigger picture that Congress is complicated and
sweeping transparency goals easily fall of the radar of those who are in
a position to make change.

But I think a short-coming of OHP was that it was too much big picture
and not enough supporting evidence. I have the Congressional Committees
chapter in mind. The recommendations were:

"explain their functions, link to relevant resources on THOMAS, publicly
post all relevant documents and information, including:recorded votes
(as per H. RES. 231) using XML, testimony and transcripts, hearing and
meeting schedules, on individual committee sites and on a centralized
site, using RSS feeds for schedules and for notification of other offerings"

The question on my mind is this: How different is reality from those
goals? How often do committees actually post results of recorded votes
(I'm talking numbers- 50% of the time?) and how difficult is it to
access (is it on the web? is it 508 accessible? is it somewhere citizens
will know where to look)?

We raised some questions, but we failed to show that Congress isn't
doing what it should be doing. We outlined goals but didn't actually
show that Congress hasn't already met them.

We would have a much stronger report, I feel, if we could go another
extra mile to do more research along these lines.

Some other questions that would have been interesting to answer and are
still relevant for OSP are:

The congressional record has deviated substantially in the past from
providing an account of what Congress actually did. Were those isolated
incidents or does this practice occur (perhaps less dramatically) often?

What is the point to congressional video? Can we show that if the public
had access to the video feed that they would be able to do something
useful with it? (Maybe the American News Project would have something to
say about it.) Is there demand?

Can we do some muckraking to figure out what the deal is with CRS
reports being sold? I feel like some law must be being broken if someone
is getting special access to government records.

Of course, to answer these questions someone needs to do some leg work.
But I always think it's best to raise the issue and worry about how to
get it done later.

Agree/disagree? Other ideas?

--
- Josh Tauberer
- GovTrack.us

http://razor.occams.info

"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation! Yields
falsehood when preceded by its quotation!" Achilles to
Tortoise (in "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter)

J.H. Snider

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Nov 22, 2008, 8:51:20 PM11/22/08
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Josh, I will respond to just one set of questions you raised:

 

What is the point to congressional video? Can we show that if the public had access to the video feed that they would be able to do something useful with it? (Maybe the American News Project would have something to say about it.) Is there demand?

 

I have written quite a bit about this question over the years; for example, see my 1996 paper, New Media, Potential Information & Democratic Accountability: A Case Study of Government Access Community Media, which won a Goldsmith Research Award from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.  The key point is that the mechanisms of democratic accountability are often highly indirect and subtle.  The norms for measuring the effectiveness of commercial media are completely inappropriate for measuring the impact of public records media.

 

--Jim Snider

--iSolon.org

Soren Dayton

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Nov 22, 2008, 9:00:51 PM11/22/08
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I would give a slightly different answer. currently, we only have "minute style" records of what happens in markups. We have no idea of the arguments deployed because there are no transcripts or video.

So we get transcripts and video of hearings. But nothing on the actual legislative actions...

David Weller

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Nov 22, 2008, 11:41:11 PM11/22/08
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The flowering of internet technology allows the streaming and recording of any event, from bill markup in sub-committee to presidential signing statement.  Each step of the way in the legislative process is just as important as the next.  We should first record, then position the media to be accessible to the general public on the web.

David Weller
www.AllThingsReform.org
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Transparency Matters: bit.ly/dw-tm

Clay Shirky

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Nov 23, 2008, 7:43:50 AM11/23/08
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I saw this in the Open Senate thread:

> The flowering of internet technology allows the streaming and recording of
> any event, from bill markup in sub-committee to presidential signing
> statement. Each step of the way in the legislative process is just as
> important as the next. We should first record, then position the media to
> be accessible to the general public on the web.

As a child of the Nixon era, I'm skeptical of this version of
transparency, because it seems to me to be based on a syllogism we've
already seen fail once (and quite spectacularly), namely:

1. Make Congress more transparent.
2. ????
3. Public benefit!

The laws opening up the workings of Congress in the aftermath of
Watergate, and esp the 1976 'Sunshine Act' ("...every portion of every
meeting of an agency shall be open to public observation" -- 5 U.S.C.
552b(b)) were discussed in much the same way as recent transparency
work.

Despite the rhetoric of public good, though, one of the principal
effects of said sunshine was to turbo-charge the lobbying industry.
Prior to 1976, hiring a lobbyist was akin to hiring a shaman: you gave
them some money, they waved some chicken bones over the appropriate
Congresspeople, a closed-door deliberation happened, and sometimes it
went your way, sometimes it didn't. No one really knew how to evaluate
value for money in lobbyists, because the key step between the fee and
the service -- the actual behavior of Congresspeople -- was hidden.

And then, in 1976, it wasn't hidden anymore. No Senator could tell the
Association of Seal-club Salesmen "Fellas, I think you've gotten a raw
deal and I'll push hard to remove regulations on clubbing seals" and
then head into a secret session and privately vote against them. Every
lobbyist then knew, and still knows, how ever member votes on
everything, and bingo -- the gears between fee and service suddenly
mesh very tightly. Hello, K Street.

Now I like the internet as much as the next guy, but transparency by
itself is an input, not an output. The output of Government is
bargains between interest groups. ('Special interest groups' is
redundant, as there are no 'national interest groups' for anything
other than national defense; its also a phrase, like Yuppie, that is
only used to describe others, never the speaker.) Some interest
groups, however, are better organized than others -- historically,
these are the interest groups that donate and have a well-managed
staff inside the Beltway.

And here's the thing: creators of transparency are arms dealers --
they sell to everybody. If transparency lets all interest groups make
use of improved information, then we would expect that the better
organized interests to make better use of any new transparency. This
is not to say that transparency is never good; it _is_ to say that it
isn't _always_ good, and that the negative effects result from
imbalances in the will to collective action, not just access to
information.

Without a middle step that helps large, disorganized groups take
advantage of the newly transparent information, transparency may in
fact further increase the net asymmetry betwee 'interest group with
lobbyists' vs. 'interest groups without lobbyists' in getting the
Government to craft the needed bargains their way.

-clay

Steven Clift

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Nov 23, 2008, 7:56:08 AM11/23/08
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In terms of video/audio (I still think getting audio coverage across
ALL public sessions is a cost-effective starting point), I recommend
that you identify a few state legislatures and a couple parliaments
(ones with public committee meetings), interview them about how they
did/do what they do and display set od screen shots and then say to
Congress and interested public, when will we do this in the U.S. House
and Senate?

One lead, the Minnesota House - http://house.mn - does an particularly
good job with deep online video access. Of course we also have
over-the-air legislative coverage - no stuck only on cable BS we
accept nationally ... if you really want to reach more people down the
road, liberate video to the extent that it can also be broadcast in
digital television side SD sub-channels in addition to CSPAN and
require in law that X days of proceding to be available on cable Video
on Demand systems.

Steven Clift
E-Democracy.Org

David Weller

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Nov 23, 2008, 3:07:30 PM11/23/08
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Clay Shirky said:

Now I like the internet as much as the next guy, but transparency by
itself is an input, not an output.

As Joe the citizen :))  I don't think we have to go only one direction.  I say, the more sunshine on legislative activity, the more the taxpayer knows what's going on.  It may never be perfectly transparent of the 'full' legislation of a bill, but the citizen voter wants to know what is going on first-hand as much of the way as possible.  Constituent feedback- not just lobbyists- is desired by our representatives.

David

Martin Bosworth

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Nov 23, 2008, 3:40:56 PM11/23/08
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One of the problems I encountered over the course of the election was how passive citizens were about getting information. They demanded the most exacting levels of specificity from candidates during speeches, and constantly complained that they weren't talking about issues--and yet weren't going to the Web sites to look at their plans. There's still too much reliance on trusted sources--news media and even respected bloggers--to act as gatekeepers, filtering the necessary information down to the body politic.

This is completely anecdotal and biased, of course, so take it as such. :) But we don't need to just make gov't transparent--we have to push citizen awareness of these tools and get them motivated to use them. That's how we cure the problem Clay mentioned upthread, where the information is available, but those with the best access and strategic knowledge take advantage of it first.

Martin
--
Martin H. Bosworth
Managing Editor, ConsumerAffairs.Com
(http://www.consumeraffairs.com)
Boztopia.com blog:
http://www.boztopia.com
LinkedIn Profile:
http://www.linkedin.com/martinbosworth
Twitter: http://twitter.com/martinboz


chrisber

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Dec 1, 2008, 12:53:48 PM12/1/08
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Clay is, in part, raising the question of that the citizen's want
actually is (vs. what we'd like it to be) and how much energy she'll
put behind that want.

The extreme programming technique of defining "user stories" to be
handled by the software could be useful here. One format is

As a (role) I want (something) so that (benefit).

Possible user stories:
1. As a voter wondering whether to respond to Politician X's
fundraising appeal, I want a summary of his track record on Issue Y so
that I can decide quickly whether to send him $25.

2. As an "Issue Y" voter, I want to know whether today is the day I
should spend the four hours a year I have budgeted for calls and email
to my Senator, and what I should say to him, so that my four hours
have as much impact as possible on the Federal Government.

3. As a policy analyst, I want to identify the Senator who has been
most vocal and consistent with my position on Issue Y, so can I get a
Senatorial hold placed on a bad bill. (e.g.
http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2007/12/18/victory/ )

3. As an investigative reporter, I want to know what changed in seven
months, so that I can explain why FISA legislation that failed in
December 2007 then passed in July 2008.

5. As a mash-up programmer, I want access to the geographical
locations of all the sites earmarked for funding in Bill Z, so I can
place them on a Google Map.

More on user stories:
http://www.agilemodeling.com/artifacts/userStory.htm

I'm new to this group, so I'd be grateful to pointers to relevant
discussions I've missed.

On Nov 23, 7:43 am, "Clay Shirky" <c...@shirky.com> wrote:
...
> As a child of the Nixon era, I'm skeptical of this version of
> transparency, because it seems to me to be based on a syllogism we've
> already seen fail once (and quite spectacularly), namely:
>
> 1. Make Congress more transparent.
> 2. ????
> 3. Public benefit!
...
> If transparency lets all interest groups make
> use of improved information, then we would expect that the better
> organized interests to make better use of any new transparency....

Jay dedman

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Dec 1, 2008, 5:00:20 PM12/1/08
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On Sun, Nov 23, 2008 at 3:40 PM, Martin Bosworth
<martinh...@gmail.com> wrote:
> One of the problems I encountered over the course of the election was how
> passive citizens were about getting information. They demanded the most
> exacting levels of specificity from candidates during speeches, and
> constantly complained that they weren't talking about issues--and yet
> weren't going to the Web sites to look at their plans. There's still too
> much reliance on trusted sources--news media and even respected bloggers--to
> act as gatekeepers, filtering the necessary information down to the body
> politic.

agreed.
But we need to continue to acknowledge the media ecosystem as it's evolving.
Most people listen to and trust CNN, Fox, ABC, NPR, etc.
Then there is the growing influence of bloggers who are influencing
those big media outlets...if not having a direct appeal to citizens.

I believe that this government transparency is specifically helpful
for the bloggers.
Think of http://fivethirtyeight.com/ and the great way he dealt with
poll numbers.
These bloggers can help parse the info and make sense of it for the
traditional journalists who still have so much influence but not as
much time/knowledge to dig deep.

But if the information is in a standard format that can be imported
into databases....then it'll be easy for developers etc to parse.

Jay

--
http://jaydedman.com
917 371 6790

Nisha Thompson

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Dec 2, 2008, 7:24:14 PM12/2/08
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chrisber,

I like the idea of user stories.  Mostly because more information doesn't mean more political participation.  It's if the information is relevant to your life.  I feel information inaccessibility needs to be real for people to get involved.  That means allowing people to tell their stories about how they felt the lack of proper information stopped them from participating. 

How do we get those stories?  Who is our audience? How does certain information affect people's lives? 

(I wanted to post this comment to your blog but comments aren't allowed when I tried)

Nisha Thompson

Silona

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Dec 2, 2008, 8:42:23 PM12/2/08
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Here are some user stories we did at the Transparent Federal Budget
event we had 1 year and half ago (called We Are All Actors.) I
believe many are quite applicable. Thanks to Bob Blakley for making
them fun to do in a script format. It really helped everyone be
engaged!

http://waaa.pbwiki.com/FrontPage
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Budget+Online
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Commentary+on+Legislation
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Corporate+Actors
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Consensus+on+Facts
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Collaborative+Creation
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Attribution+Trails
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Visualization
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Communication
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Forensic+power+analysis

Also Dan Z from SRI added
http://waaa.pbwiki.com/TFB+for+Education,+Research,+and+Discourse

We interviewed and had representatives of each group act out all the
parts. For instance, we had an elected person do a script called a
"congressman reads his email." It kills me to this day that all the
video footage was lost to incorrect format issues!

I do however still have the footage from Bill Bradley and Jimmy
Wales...
http://lotv.blip.tv/#823429
http://lotv.blip.tv/#448879

I would love to do another such event with a different scope.

Cheers!
Silona

chrisber

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Dec 3, 2008, 11:41:36 AM12/3/08
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NIsha, Silona - Thanks for extending this thread. (Don't know why
comments were turned off on that particular blog post - fixed.)

Largely, we choose the stories, based on our knowledge of what's
possible and desirable. In reading your comments, I realized that
there are at least two senses of "user story": (a) the strict way in
which it's used in extreme programming, where it's terse and dry, like
my examples; (b) the more colorful sense, like anecdotes about how,
say, a citizen's group in Alaska used thomas.gov to research the
"bridge to nowhere". To oversimplify: we gather the "B"s and boil them
down to "A"s.

Silona: waaa.pbwiki.com helps me illustrate how the terse form of
user story can be helpful. For instance, the discussion here

http://waaa.pbwiki.com/Consensus+on+Facts

covers a lot of ground on reputation, linking, voting, and
particularly tags. I liked the specifics here as well:

http://waaa.pbwiki.com/TFB+for+Education,+Research,+and+Discourse

One "type A" user story I'd extract from the wiki is:

As a busy, non-expert voter, I want a concise "report card" on
Bill X, so I can assess whether it's likely to accomplish its stated
purpose.

Terse user stories highlight the "so what", making it easier to get
funders and other sponsors on board. When you actually build the
thing, terse user stories give developers and programmers concrete
goals, so you avoid "boiling the ocean" and get something directly
useful much more quickly.

(A question for another time: to a large extent, the Open House/Senate
discussion is about creating a platform that will allow developers all
over the place to build applications that fulfill user stories yet to
be created. So, for instance, permalinks to legislation and xml
standards for committee feeds are crucial, but neither warm nor
cuddly. Does that make user stories, like those in this thread,
distractions? Or should we put together two kinds of user stories,
those for end users, which can be warm and cuddly, and those for
developers, which are more focussed on standards, apis, formats, and
the like?)

Chris

On Dec 2, 8:42 pm, Silona <sil...@gmail.com> wrote:
> Here are someuserstorieswe did at the Transparent Federal Budget
> event we had 1 year and half ago (called We Are All Actors.)  I
> believe many are quite applicable. Thanks to Bob Blakley for making
> them fun to do in a script format.  It really helped everyone be
> engaged!
>
> http://waaa.pbwiki.com/FrontPagehttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Budget+Onlinehttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Commentary+on+Legislationhttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Corporate+Actorshttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Consensus+on+Factshttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Collaborative+Creationhttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Attribution+Trailshttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Visualizationhttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Communicationhttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/Forensic+power+analysis
>
> Also Dan Z from SRI addedhttp://waaa.pbwiki.com/TFB+for+Education,+Research,+and+Discourse
>
> We interviewed and had representatives of each group act out all the
> parts.  For instance, we had an elected person do a script called a
> "congressman reads his email."  It kills me to this day that all the
> video footage was lost to incorrect format issues!
>
> I do however still have the footage from Bill Bradley and Jimmy
> Wales...http://lotv.blip.tv/#823429http://lotv.blip.tv/#448879

Nisha Thompson

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Dec 3, 2008, 7:48:18 PM12/3/08
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I think the waaa.pbwiki.com stories are excellent. 

Chris you make a good point about the place of developers and what users want. 

THis might be a little off topic, but when I was on a leadership committee for a neighborhood group in Cambrige, MA.  One of the problems that continuously came up was rat problems and trash pickup.  And for awhile the all anyone did was complain about rats.  The next step was to gather a small group of citizens that were more motivated than teh rest to really delve deep in the problem and gather information and find out what specifically was the problem and connect with experts and gov officials.  Then they would bring their findings back to the group as a whole who would discuss a plan and then involve our elected officials to make change. 

The stories helped get the majority on the side for change and then finding leaders in teh group to connect and work out solutions brought about empowerment and actual change.  Not to mention the ability to humanize the problem and the bueaucrats that deal with waste management. 

Back on topic.  I feel transparency can have those stories that can attract lots of people but hte real work is done by small groups and that is why the open house/senate project is so active.  We just need to get more stories out there to humanize transparency.

Nisha

Greg Elin

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Dec 4, 2008, 8:29:27 AM12/4/08
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On Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 12:53 PM, chrisber <bere...@netalyst.com> wrote:

Clay is, in part, raising the question of that the citizen's want
actually is (vs. what we'd like it to be) and how much energy she'll
put behind that want.
 
Possible user stories:

1. As a voter wondering whether to respond to Politician X's
fundraising appeal, I want a summary of his track record on Issue Y so
that I can decide quickly whether to send him $25.

Clay's on target pointing out equating more transparency with benefits misses steps in between deserving attention. And Chis is on target that part of the solution is having better user stories, but the suggested stories fall short of what we need.

Transparency, like technology, is not neutral because all systems embody the mental models, including strengths and weaknesses, of those who designed and built them.

I evangelize and develop Internet-based transparency because I believe the Internet's deeply embedded mental model of intelligence at the edge of the network is a better and proven model for scaling participation and engendering innovation than a centralized model.  Because the Internet model scales participation, reliability and innovation, I believe, applying the Internet to transparency scales participation, reliability and innovation of government transparency and accountability (and self-governance in general) positively in the manner I care about, just as the Internet has in thousands of domains of human endeavor to which it has been applied.

Chris's first user story--reasonable on its face--contains our rarely examined mental model of democratic participation and self governance developed over 200+ years ago as a radical innovation/alternative to monarchies and has been incrementally innovated for industrialization. I might suggest that our tendency toward centrist government in the U.S. (relatively speaking) indicates that all the Issue Y's that can be decided from a quick review of summaries of politician's track records may have been decided more or less to everyone's satisfaction. After 200 years, maybe we are left with those issues which are very intractable (poverty), very complex (censorship), or continously contentious (abortion, religion, culture). 

Let me suggest the more accurate user stories emerging are our own. It is our stories we need to be articulating and our pursuit  of transparency we need to be wrapping our heads around. Rather generic Voter V, mysterious Politician X voting record on arbitrary Issue Y, let's talk about users like Josh Tauber who creates GovTrack.us (Developer J creates Website W) and the participants of the OpenHouse list sponsored by Sunlight Foundation (Members Ms with various Roles Rs in Organizations Os in communication on email List L supported by Funder F).  If we look at how all organized groups are increasingly embracing the web, and how Obama engaged and scaled so many volunteers via MyOB, it becomes clear that Voter V's scanning of a Politician X's record increasingly happens inside some sort of digital/social/Internet-based network thingy.  The user story is far more than the record and the $25 campaign donation. Silona's efforts are one start at trying to represent the full richness of interactions and issues we are stumbling our way among. 

I'm not interested in transparency for transparency sake. I'm interested in Internet-based transparency and in using the Internet to find and/or develop better context-sensitive transparency solutions for better self-governance. I'm also interested in applying the Internet and technology to make the repetitive tasks of constant vigilance more efficient and effective. I want to stand to the shoulders of Internet giant to better perceive what the  "2. ????" is that comes between Clay's "1. Make Congress more transparent" and "3. Public benefit!"


--
Greg Elin
Sunlight Foundation (http://sunlightfoundation.com)
Sunlight Labs (http://sunlightlabs.com)
ge...@sunlightfoundation.com
gr...@fotonotes.net
skype: fotonotes
aim: wiredbike
twitter: gregelin
cell: 917-304-3488

Josh Tauberer

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Dec 4, 2008, 7:06:39 PM12/4/08
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Not to try to close the thread, but I think this is a good time to recap
the discussion.

1) A discussion ensued over the point of transparency.

This came out of my statement that we should indicate that the public
will do something useful with more information if only Congress would
provide it.

Jim referred us to his New Media, Potential Information & Democratic
Accountability
<http://jhsnider.net/MyWritings/96-08--APSA--NewMediaPotentialInformat...
DemocraticAccountability.pdf>. "It's complicated" is the bottom line?

David says: "We should first record, then position the media to


be accessible to the general public on the web."

Clay says we should make sure our recommendations help "large,
disorganized groups" rather than the interest groups that already have
more access than they might deserve.

Martin notes we have to motivate the public besides just giving them
information.

Greg said the Internet helps solve issues of scaling and engagement.
That's why the tech is important to transparency.

--------------

2) I raised the question of how we might write the OSP report in a
better, more convincing way-

I suggested that a short-coming of OHP was that it was too much big
picture and not enough supporting evidence, and that we should include ,
for instance, some numbers about how many committees publish what types
of information (stay tuned for more on that, btw).

From Clay's point, we should make sure and frame transparency in terms
of balancing information access, not merely increasing information
overall which might have an adverse effect on the little guy.

chrisber suggested using user stories to show how information can be
used, usefully, by real people as Nisha put it- for a voter, issue
voter, policy analyst, investigative reporter, and mash-up programmer.
But, do we use what I'll call "use cases" (the type A, terse stories
that give concrete goals) or "user stories" (the warm and cuddly kind)?

Silona gave example use cases.

Greg suggested me as a user story. :) Thanks Greg. Greg says the best
user stories are not about individual constituents (to paraphrase) but
about how we as entrepreneurs (my wording again) are creating projects
that involve *many* constituents, sweeping many people at once into the
governance game.

--------------

3) Committee video, etc.

David says record video first, ask questions about usefulness later.

Soren noted that committee information is skewed toward hearings, and
not markup sessions where the legislating actually occurs.

Steven noted that some states are doing a good job of broadcasting video.

And as I wrote above, let's get some numbers about how many committees
publish what types of information (stay tuned for more on that, btw).

--------------

4) Other things

I raised two other questions as examples of some other point (which I'm
noting here for future reference so I don't lose track).

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