The emergence of standardized metadata published to the Web (often called the “Wemantic Web”) offers the potential to revolutionize the economics of disclosing and accessing government information. This, in turn, offers the prospect of automating much of the work that investigative journalists and other researchers must currently do manually.
A variety of standardized metadata (which we shall call “ontologies”) must be developed and implemented for this revolution to occur. These can be divided into core ontologies and domain-specific ontologies. Core ontologies are shared widely across domains.
A core ontology may describe who, when, and where. iSolon.org has focused on a core ontology to uniquely identify who, including individuals and organizations. The difficulty in searching for the same individual or organization (the who) across hundreds or thousands of online databases it calls “the common identifier problem.” This problem must be solved before domain specific ontologies can maximize their contribution to democratic accountability.
A domain specific ontology may describe such things as legislative proceedings, budgets, and conflicts of interest. iSolon.org is interested in all three of these domain specific ontologies but has been especially focused on conflicts of interest because it is the least developed of these three domain specific areas and fits closely with iSolon.org’s larger concerns with conflicts of interest in the design of public institutions.
An example of a highly successful ontology is XBRL, a financial reporting language. Charles Hoffman, a CPA, proposed the idea for XBRL in 1998 and got the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to create an XBRL standards committee in 1999. XBRL is now being adopted by financial reporting agencies throughout the developed world. In the U.S., the SEC mandated the use of XBRL for the largest public companies effective June 15, 2009, with the complete transition to XBRL set for June 15, 2013.
Other Federal agencies developing powerful ontologies include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (the National Information Exchange Model), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Electronic Health Records, and the U.S. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (Smart Disclosure).
Note: there is substantial overlap between this project and iSolon.org’s Next Generation Checks & Balances Project, which focuses on the dismal politics of open government, and Next Generation K12 Democratic Accountability Project, which focuses on a particular policy domain of open government.
Snider, J.H., In the Dark About Early School Buses, Education Week, January 4, 2013.
Snider, J.H., White House’s ‘We The People’ Petitions Find Mixed Success, interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 3, 2013.
Snider, J.H., The White House’s We The People Petition Website: First Year Report Card, Huffington Post, September 23, 2012.
Snider, J.H., How Can We Fix the Constitution? Update the Journal Clause, Slate, June 20, 2012 [This is merely a short proposal to update the Journal Clause]
Snider, J.H., How to fix Maryland’s D-minus in corruption, Washington Examiner, March 30, 2012.
Snider, J.H., Government-wide Information Sharing for Democratic Accountability, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution, December 8, 2011.
Snider, J.H., The Case of the Missing White House Petitions, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011.
Snider, J.H., What Is the Democratic Function of the White House’s We The People Petition Website?, Huffington Post, October 20, 2011
Snider, J.H., The White House’s New We the People Petition Website, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011
Snider, J.H., “The Institutional and Technological Foundations of Open Government,” presentation at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center, September 24, 2011.
[Unique Identifiers Ontology] J.H. Snider, Connecting the Dots for Democratic Accountability: Semantic Web-Based Information Sharing Policy and the Future of Investigative Reporting, working paper released at iSolon.org event with the same name, October 22, 2010, Washington, DC. The accompanying Powerpoint presentation is here.
[Conflict-of-Interest Ontology] Federal Trade Commission, Federal Trade Commission Staff Discussion Draft: Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism, May 24, 2010, Washington, DC.
[Legislative Procedures Ontology] Snider, J.H., “It’s the Public’s Data: Democratizing School Board Records,” Education Week, June 14, 2010.
[Government Budgets Ontology] J.H. Snider, Democratize School Budget Data, Education Week, May 20, 2009.
[Conflict-of-Interest Ontology] J.H. Snider, Automating-Conflict-of-Interest Reporting, presentation at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Workshop on How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?, March 10, 2010, Washington, DC.
[Conflict-of-Interest Ontology] J.H. Snider, Automating-Conflict-of-Interest Reporting, working paper released at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Workshop on How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?, March 10, 2010, Washington, DC.
[Conflict-of-Interest Ontology] J.H. Snider, Automating Watchdog Reporting, Nieman Watchdog, July 22, 2009.
[Legislative Procedures Ontology] J.H. Snider, Would You Ask Turkeys to Mandate Thanksgiving? The Dismal Politics of Legislative Transparency, Journal of Information Technology & Democracy, Spring 2009. This is based on a working paper written for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
“Dr. Snider’s The Dismal Politics of Legislative Transparency offers a cogent explication of the inherent conflict between legislators and legislative data, dismantling the mechanisms of legislative information to expose the conflicting incentives often at their core. This argument has assisted me in advocating for bulk access to legislative data, illuminating the need for access to legislators’ roll call votes, as well as the widespread failings of legislatures to make this information available.”
— John Wonderlich,
It’s a fascinating, terrific piece of writing. I liked the conceptual framework you’ve set up: the reasons given by legislatures for not making roll call data available, the expanded speech solution via a Shadow Legislature enabled by new technology, fat and thin private legislative media and their value, the cycle of influence supported by fat and thin private legislative media, and the impact on journalists of reduced information costs. Thanks for writing this.
— Greg Elin, Chief Data Architect, Sunlight Foundation
“Your presentation at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the National Online Legislative Associates (NOLA) was compelling. Our members were eager to discuss your research on the online accessibility of roll call votes and your ideas for using new information technology to make legislative procedure more democratic. We look forward to learning about your future work in this area.”
Andy Fish, President of NOLA and Managing Partner of the Texas Legislative Services.
Open Government Legislative and Agency Testimony
Testimony of J.H. Snider on Senate Bill 644: Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government Act, before the Before the Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs, Maryland Senate, March 15, 2011, Annapolis, Maryland.
Testimony of J.H. Snider on Senate Bill 740: Public Records Act, before the Before the Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs, Maryland Senate, March 15, 2011, Annapolis, Maryland.
Written Comments of J.H. Snider on House Bill 48: Open Meetings Act, before the Before the Subcommittee on Government Operations, Maryland House of Delegates, February 17, 2011, Annapolis, Maryland.
Testimony of J.H. Snider on House Bill 37: Public Information Act, before the Before the Committee on Health and Government Operations, Maryland House of Delegates, February 1, 2011, Annapolis, Maryland.
Praise for iSolon.org’s Work on Legislative Information Systems:
(for more praise,