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Chopra at Open Gov Talk: 2011 Will Be Year of Civic Engagement

Image: whitehouse.gov

When three high-profile open-government supporters sat down for a live webcast on the one-year anniversary of the White House’s Open Government Directive to take questions from the public, it was clear, they were already thinking of the future.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra summed up the trio’s perspective best when he announced the upcoming year’s Open Gov goals.

“2011 will be the year of civic participation,” he intoned.

Chopra was joined by Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein.

All three answered a range of questions posted to the White House Facebook page and website, and shared anecdotes about Open Gov in 2010: from what kinds of data is being freed on data.gov and how government leaders interact using social media to the Veterans Affairs new health IT initiative Blue Button.

“We see broad and deep adoption of open government principles,” throughout government agencies Chopra said.

Federal agencies and departments have taken on their own “flagship initiatives,” in Sunstein’s words, through the form of “slash opens” (i.e. whitehouse.gov/open), laying out department transparency goals.

Data.gov, the online repository for federal information and datasets, was one of the stars of the webcast.

While many datasets have been added to the site, Sunstein agreed with a questioner’s emphasis on data usefulness rather than just large amounts of available data. The numbers can tend to “bury the question-in-chief, which is how is this information being used,” he said.

As for how, Kundra called for dataset crowd-sourcing on Data.gov. Users can rank which sets of information are the most helpful. So far, more than 200 applications have been developed using data on the site, everything from weather apps form the National Weather Service to traffic and healthcare.

Crowd-sourcing, in the form of using public expertise, also got a nod from Chopra, who formally announced the ExpertNet program.

The guiding principle of the program is how the government can “tap into your knowledge in the formation of policy” Chopra said.

“The goal of ExpertNet is to enable government officials to search for and communicate with citizens who have expertise on a topic, giving them the opportunity to participate in a public consultation relevant to their areas of interest and know-how,” according to the proposal published in the Federal Register recently.

As for what lies on the Open Gov horizon, Kundra said listening to the public was often the best way to stay ahead of the curve.

“We need to hear from you; we need to serve you in order to take this to the next level,” he said.

Arguably, health IT initiative Blue Button, rolled out by VA earlier this fall, which allows veterans to access online health records with the touch of a website icon, is taking it to the next level.

Chopra praised Adam Bosworth, formerly of the Google Health project and co-founder of Keas, for giving the green light in terms of implementing Blue Button. So far, 100,000 veterans have pushed the little blue button to access their online health records, Chopra said.

But what about Open Gov in future administrations?

All three emphasized the long-term goals of increasing transparency and openness.

“You have to hardwire it [Open Gov principles] into the DNA of the public sector,” Kundra said, which is hard work.

Still, he said he didn’t see the lid being put back on freed data or Open Gov practices anytime soon.

Imagine trying to get rid of the Weather Channel, he said.

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