Talking Smart interview: Waldo Jaquith, open data advocate

Waldo Jaquith got his start as an open government advocate in his teens, when he worked to put his Virginia hometown’s city code on “the world wide web.” He went on to develop better access to records and videos from Virginia’s state legislature than the state provided, and briefly worked for the Obama administration on open government data issues. Jaquith now directs the U.S. Open Data Institute, which assists governments of all sizes with technical and practical advice on how to set up open data systems and more easily share relevant government data with citizens. 


Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

SGW: How have the public’s expectations about open government changed? 

Jaquith: People still operate under the Watergate-era concept of open government – that meetings should be announced ahead of time, the minutes of those meetings should be available to the public, that people should have the freedom to request documents from the government and the government should provide them for low cost without asking why. That’s the foundation of open government in this country and that’s not going to change, but that’s very different from people’s expectations today.

The measure of open government going forward is whether or not an agency is providing the data sets people want on their website. We need to recast the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as a failure, in that government needs to see each FOIA request as a failure to provide that information preemptively so someone didn’t have to ask for it.

Most people don’t know how to make a FOIA request, but they certainly know how to use a web browser. They expect information to be provided preemptively. They expect that the video of their legislature should be online so they don’t need to drive five hours to see democracy in action. I don’t think these are unreasonable expectations, I just think government is too slow to innovate and meet citizens’ expectations.

SGW: If the future of open government is open data, what do you imagine that will look like?

Jaquith: I spoke recently at the Open Data New Jersey Summit, and representatives from a lot of small townships were there – small towns without a big staff or a lot of resources. The top question from them was, what does open government look like in an age of open data, and how do municipalities respond to that? We made two recommendations that they found helpful.

Step 1, make a record of every data request received and publish that list online. Municipal employees worry about a small number of people who make a lot of time-wasting requests that cost the town money. By posting the requests online, everybody can see what people are asking for and who is asking for it.

Step 2, when you respond to those requests with information, put that online too. One man in the audience perked up at that suggestion and told us, ‘I get the same requests all the time. If I put up all the information on the website people wouldn’t keep asking me for the same thing.’ That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You could reduce a lot of the requests that come in by having the most commonly requested information online already. That’s open data.

SGW: The federal government and the states have budgets for these projects, but small towns and counties can feel a financial crunch from records requests.

Jaquith: We have something like 88,000 governments in this country. We have a lot of very small governments with very few resources, and we can’t expect them to pass an open data purity test. I think the best path for them is to ask, ‘what information are people requesting now?’ Great, put that up and call it your open data site. Let’s meet them where they’re at and not expect them to jump through a lot of hoops.

For the bigger governments, they have an opportunity to look at the data requests they receive and put up information online that will stanch the flow of requests, but they can also figure out the types of data that people will find useful that they’re not currently requesting.

SGW: Can you give an example of that?

Jaquith: We’re working right now with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries on open hunting and fishing data. I pointedly made this our first project, because the world of open data is overwhelmingly well-meaning urban coastal types. They don’t hunt or fish. That affects the type of data they think is valuable to publish, so I wanted to pick a project that was a bit outside of that open data bubble.

We’re taking hunting and fishing regulations, which are impenetrable because they’re attorney-written laws, to help people more easily determine when and where they can hunt and fish. We’re turning the regulations into machine-readable data as an open-source project, so the state will use that data but it will also be available to anyone, including app developers who want to design an app that will help hunters and fishers.

This isn’t replacing something that people would have FOIA’ed in the past, it’s just better, more accessible data that’s more useful to people. In the future, people won’t consult a wonky hunting regulations manual for this info, they’ll Google it or check an app and get the info they need.

Are there cost-savings possibilities to moving to open data?

Jaquith: The goal is that by publishing data preemptively, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of staff time devoted to fulfilling requests. Right now, these requests are one-to-one. One person makes one request, and they’re the only people who will see the information they receive. Open data is one-to-many, one government publishes something and as many people as want it can have it. When government starts seeing FOIA requests as market indicators of the type of information people want, then that’s a path to greater efficiency and realizing savings from open government and open data.

Is the bigger challenge in moving to open government data technological, or is it in changing the mindset of government leaders and frontline employees?

Jaquith: They’re both big challenges. The model of open government is shifting from one in which government hangs onto data and gives it to people who request it to one where that information is stored and displayed externally, whenever that’s safe and plausible. But that requires a culture shift, because it’s scary. It’s huge.

We also have a technological problem. Right now, publishing open data is a thing you have to think about and work at. What we need is something like a Public/Not Public switch in document storage systems. Something like 89% of Fortune 500 companies use Microsoft SharePoint. In a sense, we need a SharePoint Open Data or Not toggle for each document, something completely automatable, and the default should be to share it.

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