A weekly curation of new findings and developments on innovation in governance.

Table of Contents

Eight ways to make government more experimental

Mar 27, 2015 08:09 am
Jonathan Breckon et al at NESTA: “When the banners and bunting have been tidied away after the May election, and a new bunch of ministers sit at their Whitehall desks, could they embrace a more experimental approach to government?

Such an approach requires a degree of humility.  Facing up to the fact that we don’t have all the answers for the next five years.  We need to test things out, evaluate new ways of doing things with the best of social science, and grow what works.  And drop policies that fail.

But how best to go about it?  Here are our 8 ways to make it a reality:

  1. Make failure OK. A more benign attitude to risk is central to experimentation.  As a 2003 Cabinet Office review entitled Trying it Out said, a pilot that reveals a policy to be flawed should be ‘viewed as a success rather than a failure, having potentially helped to avert a potentially larger political and/or financial embarrassment’. Pilots are particularly important in fast moving areas such as technology to try promising fresh ideas in real-time. Our ‘Visible Classroom’ pilot tried an innovative approach to teacher CPD developed from technology for television subtitling.
  2. Avoid making policies that are set in stone.  Allowing policy to be more project–based, flexible and time-limited could encourage room for manoeuvre, according to a previous Nesta report State of Uncertainty; Innovation policy through experimentation.  The Department for Work and Pensions’ Employment Retention and Advancement pilot scheme to help people back to work was designed to influence the shape of legislation. It allowed for amendments and learning as it was rolled out.  We need more policy experiments like this.
  3. Work with the grain of current policy environment. Experimenters need to be opportunists. We need to be nimble and flexible. Ready to seize windows of opportunity to  experiment. Some services have to be rolled out in stages due to budget constraints. This offers opportunities to try things out before going national. For instance, The Mexican Oportunidades anti-poverty experiments which eventually reached 5.8 million households in all Mexican states, had to be trialled first in a handful of areas. Greater devolution is creating a patchwork of different policy priorities, funding and delivery models – so-called ‘natural experiments’. Let’s seize the opportunity to deliberately test and compare across different jurisdictions. What about a trial of basic income in Northern Ireland, for example, along the lines of recent Finnish proposals, or universal free childcare in Scotland?
  4. Experiments need the most robust and appropriate evaluation methods such as, if appropriate, Randomised Controlled Trials. Other methods, such as qualitative research may be needed to pry open the ‘black box’ of policies – to learn about why and how things are working. Civil servants should use the government trial advice panel as a source of expertise when setting up experiments.
  5. Grow the public debate about the importance of experimentation. Facebook had to apologise after a global backlash to psychological experiments on their 689,000 users web-users. Approval by ethics committees – normal practice for trials in hospitals and universities – is essential, but we can’t just rely on experts. We need a dedicated public understanding of experimentation programmes, perhaps run by Evidence Matters or Ask for Evidence campaigns at Sense about Science. Taking part in an experiment in itself can be a learning opportunity creating  an appetite amongt the public, something we have found from running an RCT with schools.
  6. Create ‘Skunkworks’ institutions. New or improved institutional structures within government can also help with experimentation.   The Behavioural Insights Team, located in Nesta,  operates a classic ‘skunkworks’ model, semi-detached from day-to-day bureaucracy. The nine UK What Works Centres help try things out semi-detached from central power, such as the The Education Endowment Foundation who source innovations widely from across the public and private sectors- including Nesta-  rather than generating ideas exclusively in house or in government.
  7. Find low-cost ways to experiment. People sometimes worry that trials are expensive and complicated.  This does not have to be the case. Experiments to encourage organ donation by the Government Digital Service and Behavioural Insights Team involved an estimated cost of £20,000.  This was because the digital experiments didn’t involve setting up expensive new interventions – just changing messages on  web pages for existing services. Some programmes do, however, need significant funding to evaluate and budgets need to be found for it. A memo from the White House Office for Management and Budget has asked for new Government schemes seeking funding to allocate a proportion of their budgets to ‘randomized controlled trials or carefully designed quasi-experimental techniques’.
  8. Be bold. A criticism of some experiments is that they only deal with the margins of policy and delivery. Government officials and researchers should set up more ambitious experiments on nationally important big-ticket issues, from counter-terrorism to innovation in jobs and housing….(More)

Full Post: Eight ways to make government more experimental

New York Police to Use Social Media to Connect With Residents

Mar 27, 2015 06:29 am

Benjamin Mueller And Jeffrey E. Singer at the New York Times: “The New York Police Department has faced its share of pushback on social media, most memorably when it solicited photos of police interactions on Twitter under the hashtag #myNYPD. Images of aggression by officers upended that campaign.

Now, the department is seeking to turn New Yorkers’ penchant for online complaints to its gain by crowdsourcing their concerns. It has even consulted another sector troubled by social media gripes — the airline industry — to become more responsive to problems voiced online.

“They’re very good at managing customer complaints,” said Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and leader of the department’s social media efforts, who visited Delta Air Lines’ Atlanta headquarters this month. “That’s an area we need to explore.”

The department’s fleet of commanding officers has found its footing on Twitter in recent months, using the site to herald arrests, announce transportation delays and spread information about suspects. Now, the officers are planning to use that online visibility to draw ground-level information on crimes and conditions, a potential boost to a department seeking to align its “broken windows” crime-fighting objectives with local communities’ needs….

In a pilot program starting next month in the 109th Precinct in Queens, police officials will use a platform called IdeaScale to solicit tips and concerns from residents. The platform, which some government agencies have used internally as a brainstorming tool, promotes the posts that other users agree deserve attention.

In that way, officials argue, the police will be able to look beyond departmentwide priorities and focus on concerns that resonate in smaller communities….(More)”

Full Post: New York Police to Use Social Media to Connect With Residents

Twitter for government: Indonesians get social media for public services

Mar 27, 2015 06:19 am

Medha Basu at FutureGov: “One of the largest users of social media in the world, Indonesians are taking it a step further with a new social network just for public services.

Enda Nasution and his team have built an app called Sebangsa, or Same Nation, featuring Facebook-like timelines (or Twitter-like feeds) for citizens to share about public services.

They want to introduce an idea they call “social government” in Indonesia, Nasution told FutureGov, going beyond e-government and open government to build a social relationship between the government and citizens….

It has two features that stand out. One called Sebangsa911 is for Indonesians to post emergencies, much like they might on Twitter or Facebook when they see an accident on the road or a crowd getting violent, for instance. Indonesia does not have any single national emergency number.

Another feature is called Sebangsa1800 which is a channel for people to post reviews, questions and complaints on public services and consumer products.

Why another social network?
But why build another social network when there are millions of users on Facebook and Twitter already? One reason is to provide a service that focuses on Indonesians, Nasution said – the app is in Bahasa.

Another is because existing social networks are not built specifically for public services. If you post a photo of an accident on Twitter, how many and how fast people see it depends on how many followers you have, Nasution said. These reports are also unstructured because they are “scattered all over Twitter”, he said. The app “introduces a little bit of structure to the reports”….(More)”

Full Post: Twitter for government: Indonesians get social media for public services

Embracing Crowdsourcing

Mar 27, 2015 05:21 am

Paper by Jesse A. Sievers on “A Strategy for State and Local Governments Approaching “Whole Community” Emergency Planning”: “Over the last century, state and local governments have been challenged to keep proactive, emergency planning efforts ahead of the after-the-disaster, response efforts. After moving from decentralized to centralized planning efforts, the most recent policy has returned to the philosophy that a decentralized planning approach is the most effective way to plan for a disaster. In fact, under the Obama administration, a policy of using the “whole community” approach to emergency planning has been adopted. This approach, however, creates an obvious problem for state and local government practitioners already under pressure for funding, time, and the continuous need for higher and broader expertise—the problem of how to actually incorporate the whole community into emergency planning efforts. This article suggests one such approach, crowdsourcing, as an option for local governments. The crowdsourcer-problem-crowd-platform-solution (CPCPS) model is suggested as an initial framework for practitioners seeking a practical application and basic comprehension. The model, discussion, and additional examples in this essay provide a skeletal framework for state and local governments wishing to reach the whole community while under the constraints of time, budget, and technical expertise….(More).

Full Post: Embracing Crowdsourcing

World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index

Mar 26, 2015 04:56 pm

“The World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index™ provides scores and rankings on four dimensions of government openness: publicized laws and government data, right to information, civic participation, and complaint mechanisms (full descriptions below). Scores are based on responses to household surveys and in-country expert questionnaires collected for the WJP Rule of Law Index. The WJP Open Government Index 2015 covers a total of 102 countries and jurisdictions.

This index is the product of two years of development, consultation, and vetting with policy makers, civil society groups, and academics from several countries. It is our hope that over time this diagnostic tool will help identify strengths and weaknesses in countries under review and encourage policy choices that enhance openness, promote effective public oversight, and increase collaboration amongst public and private sectors.

Full Post: World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index

Mobile Spans Language Gap to Aid Human Trafficking Victims

Mar 25, 2015 10:13 am

Aida Akl at VOATechTonics: “A mobile solution from the Mekong Club, a non-profit group dedicated to fighting slavery, helps identify potential trafficking victims among populations where the person’s country of origin and language is unknown, and lets law enforcement agencies communicate with them.

The Android app was the product of collaboration between the Mekong Club, the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons, and MotherApp, a private company that developed the app for free.

To communicate with potential victims, users press an icon which brings up a sample of flags on the phone’s screen, said Mathew Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club, in an email interview.

A screenshot from the human trafficking mobile app shows potential human trafficking victims the flags of several countries. Once users choose thee one that corresponds to them, a video in their language comes on and asks them questions about whether they are being exploited and need help.

Users then tap the flags that correspond to their countries of origin. “Once this has been done,” Friedman added, “a video in the language of the country comes up informing the respondent of his/her rights, assuring them of confidentiality, and explaining that the officials playing the video to them are there to help should they require assistance.”

The videos pose a number of questions for users to respond to by pressing either a green button for an affirmative answer or a red button for a negative response.

A screenshot from the Mekong Club's mobile app shows some of the questions users are asked to determine if they are victims of human trafficking. (The Mekong Club)

The questions help law enforcement officials determine if the respondent is a victim of human trafficking.

“If all of the users’ answers are in the affirmative, then that would indicate a potential problem,” said Friedman.

Organizations that tested the app found it useful in bridging the translation gap. Friedman said the easy-to-use app offers an option for responders to triage potential victims in locations where translation is absent and allows the user to take notes and record audio/visual information….

Once developed, Friedman said the app will be cost-effective because “putting it on responder phones doesn’t cost anything.” But he lamented that it was only able to help “about 48,000″ trafficking victims last year — “well below one percent,” he said….(More)”

Full Post: Mobile Spans Language Gap to Aid Human Trafficking Victims

Why Google’s Waze Is Trading User Data With Local Governments

Mar 24, 2015 08:45 am

Parmy Olson at Forbes: “In Rio de Janeiro most eyes are on the final, nail-biting matches of the World Cup. Over in the command center of the city’s department of transport though, they’re on a different set of screens altogether.

Planners there are watching the aggregated data feeds of thousands of smartphones being walked or driven around a city, thanks to two popular travel apps, Waze and Moovit.

The goal is traffic management, and it involves swapping data for data. More cities are lining up to get access, and while the data the apps are sharing is all anonymous for now, identifying details could get more specific if cities like what they see, and people become more comfortable with being monitored through their smartphones in return for incentives.

Rio is the first city in the world to collect real-time data both from drivers who use the Waze navigation app and pedestrians who use the public-transportation app Moovit, giving it an unprecedented view on thousands of moving points across the sprawling city. Rio is also talking to the popular cycling app Strava to start monitoring how cyclists are moving around the city too.

All three apps are popular, consumer services which, in the last few months, have found a new way to make their crowdsourced data useful to someone other than advertisers. While consumers use Waze and Moovit to get around, both companies are flipping the use case and turning those millions of users into a network of sensors that municipalities can tap into for a better view on traffic and hazards. Local governments can also use these apps as a channel to send alerts.

On an average day in June, Rio’s transport planners could get an aggregated view of 110,000 drivers (half a million over the course of the month), and see nearly 60,000 incidents being reported each day – everything from built-up traffic, to hazards on the road, Waze says. Till now they’ve been relying on road cameras and other basic transport-department information.

What may be especially tantalizing for planners is the super-accurate read Waze gets on exactly where drivers are going, by pinging their phones’ GPS once every second. The app can tell how fast a driver is moving and even get a complete record of their driving history, according to Waze spokesperson Julie Mossler. (UPDATE: Since this story was first published Waze has asked to clarify that it separates users’ names and their 30-day driving info. The driving history is categorized under an alias.)

This passively-tracked GPS data “is not something we share,” she adds. Waze, which Google bought last year for $1.3 billion, can turn the data spigots on and off through its application programing interface (API).

Waze has been sharing user data with Rio since summer 2013 and it just signed up the State of Florida. It says more departments of transport are in the pipeline.

But none of these partnerships are making Waze any money. The app’s currency of choice is data. “It’s a two-way street,” says Mossler. “Literally.”

In return for its user updates, Waze gets real-time information from Rio on highways, from road sensors and even from cameras, while Florida will give the app data on construction projects or city events.

Florida’s department of transport could not be reached for comment, but one of its spokesmen recently told a local news station: “We’re going to share our information, our camera images, all of our information that comes from the sensors on the roadway, and Waze is going to share its data with us.”…

To get Moovit’s data, municipalities download a web interface that gives them an aggregated view of where pedestrians using Moovit are going. In return, the city feeds Moovit’s database with a stream of real-time GPS data for buses and trains, and can issue transport alerts to Moovit’s users. Erez notes the cities aren’t allowed to make “any sort of commercial approach to the users.”

Erez may be saving that for advertisers, an avenue he says he’s still exploring. For now getting data from cities is the bigger priority. It gives Moovit “a competitive advantage,” he says.

Cycling app Strava also recently started sharing its real-time user data as part of a paid-for service called Strava Metro.

Municipalities pay 80 cents a year for every Strava member being tracked. Metro only launched in May, but it already counts the state of Oregon; London, UK; Glasgow, Scotland; Queensland, Austalia and Evanston, Illinois as customers.
Privacy advocates will naturally want to keep a wary eye on what data is being fed to cities, and that it doesn’t leak or get somehow misused by City Hall. The data-sharing might not be ubiquitous enough for that to be a problem yet, and it should be noted that any kind of deal making with the public sector can get wrapped up in bureaucracy and take years to get off the ground.

For now Waze says it’s acting for the public good….(More)

Full Post: Why Google’s Waze Is Trading User Data With Local Governments

Growing Data Collection Inspires Openness at NGA

Mar 24, 2015 08:20 am

at Secrecy News: “A flood of information from the ongoing proliferation of space-based sensors and ground-based data collection devices is promoting a new era of transparency in at least one corner of the U.S. intelligence community.

The “explosion” of geospatial information “makes geospatial intelligence increasingly transparent because of the huge number and diversity of commercial and open sources of information,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), in a speech last month.

Hundreds of small satellites are expected to be launched within the next three years — what Mr. Cardillo called a “darkening of the skies” — and they will provide continuous, commercially available coverage of the entire Earth’s surface.

“The challenges of taking advantage of all of that data are daunting for all of us,” Mr. Cardillo said.

Meanwhile, the emerging “Internet of Things” is “spreading rapidly as more people carry more handheld devices to more places” generating an abundance of geolocation data.

This is, of course, a matter of intelligence interest since “Every local, regional, and global challenge — violent extremism in the Middle East and Africa, Russian aggression, the rise of China, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons, cyber security, energy resources, and many more — has geolocation at its heart.”

Consequently, “We must open up GEOINT far more toward the unclassified world,” Director Cardillo said in another speech last week.

“In the past, we have excelled in our closed system. We enjoyed a monopoly on sources and methods. That monopoly has long since ended. Today and in the future, we must thrive and excel in the open.”

So far, NGA has already distinguished itself in the area of disaster relief, Mr. Cardillo said.

“Consider Team NGA’s response to the Ebola crisis. We are the first intelligence agency to create a World Wide Web site with access to our relevant unclassified content. It is open to everyone — no passwords, no closed groups.”

NGA provided “more than a terabyte of up-to-date commercial imagery.”

“You can imagine how important it is for the Liberian government to have accurate maps of the areas hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic as well as the medical and transportation infrastructure to combat the disease,” Mr. Cardillo said.

But there are caveats. Just because information is unclassified does not mean that it is freely available.

“Although 99 percent of all of our Ebola data is unclassified, most of that is restricted by our agreements [with commercial providers],” Mr. Cardillo said. “We are negotiating with many sources to release more data.”

Last week, Director Cardillo announced a new project called GEOINT Pathfinder that will attempt “to answer key intelligence questions using only unclassified data.”….(More)

Full Post: Growing Data Collection Inspires Openness at NGA

Methods to Protect and Secure “Big Data” May Be Unknowingly Corrupting Research

Mar 23, 2015 09:04 pm

New paper by John M. Abowd and Ian M. Schmutte: “…As the government and private companies increase the amount of data made available for public use (e.g. Census data, employment surveys, medical data), efforts to protect privacy and confidentiality (through statistical disclosure limitation or SDL) can often cause misleading and compromising effects on economic research and analysis, particularly in cases where data properties are unclear for the end-user.

Data swapping is a particularly insidious method of SDL and is frequently used by important data aggregators like the Census Bureau, the National Center for Health Statistics and others, which interferes with the results of empirical analysis in ways that few economists and other social scientists are aware of.

To encourage more transparency, the authors call for both government statistical agencies as well as the private sector (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netfix, Yahoo!, etc.) to release more information about parameters used in SDL methods, and insist that journals and editors publishing such research require documentation of the author’s entire methodological process….(More)


Full Post: Methods to Protect and Secure “Big Data” May Be Unknowingly Corrupting Research

Using Innovation and Technology to Improve City Services

Mar 23, 2015 05:01 pm

New report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government: “In this report, Professor Greenberg examines a dozen cities across the United States that have award-winning reputations for using innovation and technology to improve the services they provide to their residents. She explores a variety of success factors associated with effective service delivery at the local level, including:

  • The policies, platforms, and applications that cities use for different purposes, such as public engagement, streamlining the issuance of permits, and emergency response
  • How cities can successfully partner with third parties, such as nonprofits, foundations, universities, and private businesses to improve service delivery using technology
  • The types of business cases that can be presented to mayors and city councils to support various changes proposed by innovators in city government

Professor Greenberg identifies a series of trends that drive cities to undertake innovations, such as the increased use of mobile devices by residents. Based on cities’ responses to these trends, she offers a set of findings and specific actions that city officials can act upon to create innovation agendas for their communities. Her report also presents case studies for each of the dozen cities in her review. These cases provide a real-world context, which will allow interested leaders in other cities to see how their own communities might approach similar innovation initiatives.

This report builds on two other IBM Center reports: A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work, by Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black, and The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Public Servants, by Sandford Borins, which examines the use of awards to stimulate innovation in government….(More)”

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New Desktop Application Has Potential to Increase Asteroid Detection, Now Available to Public

Mar 22, 2015 08:31 pm

NASA Press Release: “A software application based on an algorithm created by a NASA challenge has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers.

Analysis of images taken of our solar system’s main belt asteroids between Mars and Jupiter using the algorithm showed a 15 percent increase in positive identification of new asteroids.

During a panel Sunday at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, NASA representatives discussed how citizen scientists have made a difference in asteroid hunting. They also announced the release of a desktop software application developed by NASA in partnership with Planetary Resources, Inc., of Redmond, Washington. The application is based on an Asteroid Data Hunter-derived algorithm that analyzes images for potential asteroids. It’s a tool that can be used by amateur astronomers and citizen scientists.

The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge was part of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. The data hunter contest series, which was conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources under a Space Act Agreement, was announced at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival and concluded in December. The series offered a total of $55,000 in awards for participants to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes. The winning solutions of each piece of the contest combined to create an application using the best algorithm that increased the detection sensitivity, minimized the number of false positives, ignored imperfections in the data, and ran effectively on all computer systems.

“The Asteroid Grand Challenge is seeking non-traditional partnerships to bring the citizen science and space enthusiast community into NASA’s work,” said Jason Kessler, program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. “The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge has been successful beyond our hopes, creating something that makes a tangible difference to asteroid hunting astronomers and highlights the possibility for more people to play a role in protecting our planet.”…

The new asteroid hunting application can be downloaded at:

For information about NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, visit:

Full Post: New Desktop Application Has Potential to Increase Asteroid Detection, Now Available to Public

The perils of extreme democracy

Mar 22, 2015 01:15 pm

The Economist: “California cannot pass timely budgets even in good years, which is one reason why its credit rating has, in one generation, fallen from one of the best to the absolute worst among the 50 states. How can a place which has so much going for it—from its diversity and natural beauty to its unsurpassed talent clusters in Silicon Valley and Hollywood—be so poorly governed? ….But as our special report this week argues, the main culprit has been direct democracy: recalls, in which Californians fire elected officials in mid-term; referendums, in which they can reject acts of their legislature; and especially initiatives, in which the voters write their own rules. Since 1978, when Proposition 13 lowered property-tax rates, hundreds of initiatives have been approved on subjects from education to the regulation of chicken coops.

This citizen legislature has caused chaos. Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent: for all its small-government pretensions, Proposition 13 ended up centralising California’s finances, shifting them from local to state government. Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications. And they have impoverished the state’s representative government. Who would want to sit in a legislature where 70-90% of the budget has already been allocated?

This has been a tragedy for California, but it matters far beyond the state’s borders. Around half of America’s states and an increasing number of countries have direct democracy in some form (article). Next month Britain will have its first referendum for years (on whether to change its voting system), and there is talk of voter recalls for aberrant MPs. The European Union has just introduced the first supranational initiative process. With technology making it ever easier to hold referendums and Western voters ever more angry with their politicians, direct democracy could be on the march.

And why not? There is, after all, a successful model: in Switzerland direct democracy goes back to the Middle Ages at the local level and to the 19th century at the federal. This mixture of direct and representative democracy seems to work well. Surely it is just a case of California (which explicitly borrowed the Swiss model) executing a good idea poorly?

Not entirely. Very few people, least of all this newspaper, want to ban direct democracy. Indeed, in some cases referendums are good things: they are a way of holding a legislature to account. In California reforms to curb gerrymandering and non-partisan primaries, both improvements, have recently been introduced by initiatives; and they were pushed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a governor elected through the recall process. But there is a strong case for proceeding with caution, especially when it comes to allowing people to circumvent a legislature with citizen-made legislation.

The debate about the merits of representative and direct democracy goes back to ancient times. To simplify a little, the Athenians favoured pure democracy (“people rule”, though in fact oligarchs often had the last word); the Romans chose a republic, as a “public thing”, where representatives could make trade-offs for the common good and were accountable for the sum of their achievements. America’s Founding Fathers, especially James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, backed the Romans. Indeed, in their guise of “Publius” in the “Federalist Papers”, Madison and Hamilton warn against the dangerous “passions” of the mob and the threat of “minority factions” (ie, special interests) seizing the democratic process.

Proper democracy is far more than a perpetual ballot process. It must include deliberation, mature institutions and checks and balances such as those in the American constitution. Ironically, California imported direct democracy almost a century ago as a “safety valve” in case government should become corrupt. The process began to malfunction only relatively recently. With Proposition 13, it stopped being a valve and instead became almost the entire engine.

….More important, direct democracy must revert to being a safety valve, not the engine. Initiatives should be far harder to introduce. They should be shorter and simpler, so that voters can actually understand them. They should state what they cost, and where that money is to come from. And, if successful, initiatives must be subject to amendment by the legislature. Those would be good principles to apply to referendums, too….(More)”

Full Post: The perils of extreme democracy

Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard

Mar 22, 2015 12:48 pm

Futuristic control rooms have proliferated in dozens of global cities. Baltimore has its CitiStat Room, where department heads stand at a podium before a wall of screens and account for their units’ performance.  The Mayor’s office in London’s City Hall features a 4×3 array of iPads mounted in a wooden panel, which seems an almost parodic, Terry Gilliam-esque take on the Brazilian Ops Center. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned an iPad app – the “No. 10 Dashboard” (a reference to his residence at 10 Downing Street) – which gives him access to financial, housing, employment, and public opinion data. As The Guardian reported, “the prime minister said that he could run government remotely from his smartphone.”

This is the age of Dashboard Governance, heralded by gurus like Stephen Few, founder of the “visual business intelligence” and “sensemaking” consultancy Perceptual Edge, who defines the dashboard as a “visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.” A well-designed dashboard, he says — one that makes proper use of bullet graphs, sparklines, and other visualization techniques informed by the “brain science” of aesthetics and cognition — can afford its users not only a perceptual edge, but a performance edge, too. The ideal display offers a big-picture view of what is happening in real time, along with information on historical trends, so that users can divine the how and why and redirect future action. As David Nettleton emphasizes, the dashboard’s utility extends beyond monitoring “the current situation”; it also “allows a manager to … make provisions, and take appropriate actions.”….

The dashboard market now extends far beyond the corporate world. In 1994, New York City police commissioner William Bratton adapted former officer Jack Maple’s analog crime maps to create the CompStat model of aggregating and mapping crime statistics. Around the same time, the administrators of Charlotte, North Carolina, borrowed a business idea — Robert Kaplan’s and David Norton’s “total quality management” strategy known as the “Balanced Scorecard” — and began tracking performance in five “focus areas” defined by the City Council: housing and neighborhood development, community safety, transportation, economic development, and the environment. Atlanta followed Charlotte’s example in creating its own city dashboard.

In 1999, Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, confronting a crippling crime rate and high taxes, designed CitiStat, “an internal process of using metrics to create accountability within his government.” (This rhetoric of data-tested internal “accountability” is prevalent in early dashboard development efforts.) The project turned to face the public in 2003, when Baltimore launched a website of city operational statistics, which inspired DCStat (2005), Maryland’s StateStat (2007), and NYCStat (2008). Since then, myriad other states and metro areas — driven by a “new managerialist” approach to urban governance, committed to “benchmarking” their performance against other regions, and obligated to demonstrate compliance with sustainability agendas — have developed their own dashboards.

The Open Michigan Mi Dashboard is typical of these efforts. The state website presents data on education, health and wellness, infrastructure, “talent” (employment, innovation), public safety, energy and environment, financial health, and seniors. You (or “Mi”) can monitor the state’s performance through a side-by-side comparison of “prior” and “current” data, punctuated with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon indicating the state’s “progress” on each metric. Another click reveals a graph of annual trends and a citation for the data source, but little detail about how the data are actually derived. How the public is supposed to use this information is an open question….(More)”

Full Post: Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard

Why governments need guinea pigs for policies

Mar 22, 2015 12:34 pm

Jonathan Breckon in the Guardian:”People are unlikely to react positively to the idea of using citizens as guinea pigs; many will be downright disgusted. But there are times when government must experiment on us in the search for knowledge and better policy….

Though history calls into question the ethics of experimentation, unless we try things out, we will never learn. The National Audit Office says that £66bn worth of government projects have no plans to evaluate their impact. It is unethical to roll out policies in this arbitrary way. We have to experiment on a small scale to have a better understanding of how things work before rolling out policies across the UK. This is just as relevant to social policy, as it is to science and medicine, as set out in a new report by the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

Whether it’s the best ways to teach our kids to read, designing programmes to get unemployed people back to work, or encouraging organ donation – if the old ways don’t work, we have to test new ones. And that testing can’t always be done by a committee in Whitehall or in a university lab.

Experimentation can’t happen in isolation. What works in Lewisham or Londonnery, might not work in Lincoln – or indeed across the UK. For instance, there is a huge amount debate around the current practice of teaching children to read and spell using phonics, which was based on a small-scale study in Clackmannanshire, as well as evidence from the US. A government-commissioned review on the evidence for phonics led professor Carole Torgerson, then at York University, to warn against making national policy off the back of just one small Scottish trial.

One way round this problem is to do larger experiments. The increasing use of the internet in public services allows for more and faster experimentation, on a larger scale for lower cost – the randomised controlled trial on voter mobilisation that went to 61 million users in the 2010 US midterm elections, for example. However, the use of the internet doesn’t get us off the ethical hook. Facebook had to apologise after a global backlash to secret psychological tests on their 689,000 users.

Contentious experiments should be approved by ethics committees – normal practice for trials in hospitals and universities.

We are also not interested in freewheeling trial-and-error; robust and appropriate research techniques to learn from experiments are vital. It’s best to see experimentation as a continuum, ranging from the messiness of attempts to try something new to experiments using the best available social science, such as randomised controlled trials.

Experimental government means avoiding an approach where everything is fixed from the outset. What we need is “a spirit of experimentation, unburdened by promises of success”, as recommended by the late professor Roger Jowell, author of the 2003 Cabinet Office report, Trying it out [pdf]….(More)”

Full Post: Why governments need guinea pigs for policies

Design in policy making

Mar 22, 2015 12:27 pm

at the Open Policy Making Blog: “….In recent years, notable policy and business experts have been discussing the value of design and ‘design thinking’ as an approach to improving the way Government delivers services in one form or another for (and with) citizens.  Examples include Roger Martin from Rotman Business School, Christian Bason formerly of Mindlab, Marco Steinberg of Sitra, Hilary Cottam of Participle, and many more who have been promoting the use of design as a tool for service transformation.

So what is design and how is it being applied in government?  This is the question that has been posed this week at the Service Design in Government conference in London.  This week is also the launch of some of the Policy Lab tools in the Policy Toolkit.

The Policy Lab have produced a short introduction to design, service design and design thinking.  It serves to explain how we are defining and using the term design in various ways in a policy context as well as provide practical tools and examples of design being used in policy making.

We tend to spot design when it goes wrong: badly laid out forms, websites we can’t navigate, confusing signage, transport links that don’t join together, queues for services that are in demand. Bad design is a time thief.  We can also spot good design when we see it, but how is it achieved?…(More)”

Full Post: Design in policy making

Big Data for Social Good

Mar 22, 2015 12:09 pm

Introduction to a Special Issue of the Journal “Big Data” by Catlett Charlie and Ghani Rayid: “…organizations focused on social good are realizing the potential as well but face several challenges as they seek to become more data-driven. The biggest challenge they face is a paucity of examples and case studies on how data can be used for social good. This special issue of Big Data is targeted at tackling that challenge and focuses on highlighting some exciting and impactful examples of work that uses data for social good. The special issue is just one example of the recent surge in such efforts by the data science community. …

This special issue solicited case studies and problem statements that would either highlight (1) the use of data to solve a social problem or (2) social challenges that need data-driven solutions. From roughly 20 submissions, we selected 5 articles that exemplify this type of work. These cover five broad application areas: international development, healthcare, democracy and government, human rights, and crime prevention.

“Understanding Democracy and Development Traps Using a Data-Driven Approach” (Ranganathan et al.) details a data-driven model between democracy, cultural values, and socioeconomic indicators to identify a model of two types of “traps” that hinder the development of democracy. They use historical data to detect causal factors and make predictions about the time expected for a given country to overcome these traps.

“Targeting Villages for Rural Development Using Satellite Image Analysis” (Varshney et al.) discusses two case studies that use data and machine learning techniques for international economic development—solar-powered microgrids in rural India and targeting financial aid to villages in sub-Saharan Africa. In the process, the authors stress the importance of understanding the characteristics and provenance of the data and the criticality of incorporating local “on the ground” expertise.

In “Human Rights Event Detection from Heterogeneous Social Media Graphs,” Chen and Neil describe efficient and scalable techniques to use social media in order to detect emerging patterns in human rights events. They test their approach on recent events in Mexico and show that they can accurately detect relevant human rights–related tweets prior to international news sources, and in some cases, prior to local news reports, which could potentially lead to more timely, targeted, and effective advocacy by relevant human rights groups.

“Finding Patterns with a Rotten Core: Data Mining for Crime Series with Core Sets” (Wang et al.) describes a case study with the Cambridge Police Department, using a subspace clustering method to analyze the department’s full housebreak database, which contains detailed information from thousands of crimes from over a decade. They find that the method allows human crime analysts to handle vast amounts of data and provides new insights into true patterns of crime committed in Cambridge…..(More)

Full Post: Big Data for Social Good

An In-Depth Analysis of Open Data Portals as an Emerging Public E-Service

Mar 22, 2015 12:03 pm

Paper by Martin Lnenicka: “Governments collect and produce large amounts of data. Increasingly, governments worldwide have started to implement open data initiatives and also launch open data portals to enable the release of these data in open and reusable formats. Therefore, a large number of open data repositories, catalogues and portals have been emerging in the world. The greater availability of interoperable and linkable open government data catalyzes secondary use of such data, so they can be used for building useful applications which leverage their value, allow insight, provide access to government services, and support transparency. The efficient development of successful open data portals makes it necessary to evaluate them systematic, in order to understand them better and assess the various types of value they generate, and identify the required improvements for increasing this value. Thus, the attention of this paper is directed particularly to the field of open data portals. The main aim of this paper is to compare the selected open data portals on the national level using content analysis and propose a new evaluation framework, which further improves the quality of these portals. It also establishes a set of considerations for involving businesses and citizens to create eservices and applications that leverage on the datasets available from these portals….(More)”

Full Post: An In-Depth Analysis of Open Data Portals as an Emerging Public E-Service

Information transparency of public administrations. The right of the people to know and the duty to disseminate public information actively

Mar 22, 2015 08:40 am

New book by Miguel Angel Blanes Climent:”El presente trabajo de investigación analiza la situación legal y judicial existente en las principales democracias del mundo y en el ámbito de Naciones Unidas, Consejo de Europa y Unión Europea. Se trata, por tanto, de una poderosa herramienta para saber quién, cómo, cuándo, dónde y a qué tipo de información financiada con fondos públicos se puede acceder por parte de los ciudadanos. Y lo que es más importante: qué recursos administrativos y judiciales se pueden presentar cuando la información no es facilitada y cuáles son sus consecuencias disciplinarias, patrimoniales y penales. El trabajo examina con detalle la nueva Ley 19/2013, de 9 de diciembre, de transparencia, acceso a la información pública y buen gobierno, así como la normativa autonómica existente en la materia.
Es objeto de especial estudio el acceso a la información sensible: adjudicatarios y coste final de los contratos públicos; datos urbanísticos y medioambientales; presupuesto y cuentas públicas; sueldos, dietas y viajes de los cargos electos y funcionarios; financiación de partidos políticos, sindicatos y organizaciones empresariales; listas de espera sanitarias y de vivienda; beneficiarios de subvenciones; publicidad institucional; los servicios públicos de interés general prestados por entidades privadas -telecomunicaciones, electricidad, gas, servicios postales- y los concesionarios de servicios públicos -agua, residuos, transporte, sanidad- etc.
La información que se resiste a ser publicada es toda aquella que permite a los ciudadanos controlar la gestión de los asuntos públicos, exigir la rendición de cuentas y denunciar casos de despilfarro o corrupción. El autor acuña el lema: «la transparencia es como la sinceridad: se exige la ajena y se limita la propia».” …(More)

Full Post: Information transparency of public administrations. The right of the people to know and the duty to disseminate public information actively

Turning Government Data into Better Public Service

Mar 21, 2015 08:26 am

OMB Blog: “Every day, millions of people use their laptops, phones, and tablets to check the status of their tax refund, get the latest forecast from the National Weather Service, book a campsite at one of our national parks, and much more. There were more than 1.3 billion visits to websites across the Federal Government in just the past 90 days.

Today, during Sunshine Week when we celebrate openness and transparency in government, we are pleased to release the Digital Analytics Dashboard, a new window into the way people access the government online. For the first time, you can see how many people are using a Federal Government website, which pages are most popular, and which devices, browsers, and operating systems people are using. We’ll use the data from the Digital Analytics Program to focus our digital service teams on the services that matter most to the American people, and analyze how much progress we are making. The Dashboard will help government agencies understand how people find, access, and use government services online to better serve the public – all while protecting privacy.  The program does not track individuals. It anonymizes the IP addresses of all visitors and then uses the resulting information in the aggregate….(More)


Full Post: Turning Government Data into Better Public Service

The Missing Information That Municipal-Bond Investors Need

Mar 21, 2015 08:23 am

Marc Joffe at Governing: “…There are many reasons why the municipal market lacks sophistication in this area, but a big part of the problem has been a lack of free (or even low-cost) financial-statement data. In this regard, some strides are being made. First, the 2009 launch by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) of its Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system gave investors a one-stop shop for municipal financial disclosure. But as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) observed recently, a large number of municipal-bond issuers have been posting their statements late or not at all. The commission’s Municipal Continuing Disclosure Cooperation Initiative has greatly increased the number of statements on EMMA. Finally, late this year the Census Bureau is expected to begin posting federal single-audit submissions online. These packages include the same basic financial statements typically found in municipal market disclosure.

But the simple publication of thousands of voluminous PDFs does not provide the degree of transparency needed to raise the level of municipal-bond-market financial literacy. The vast majority of investors and analysts lack the patience and/or technical skills needed to extract the valuable needles of insight from this haystack of disclosure.

Investors in corporate securities do not face these difficulties. For the last 20 years, company financial reports have been available in textual form on the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system. As a result, corporate financial-statement data is freely available in convenient forms around the Internet: Yahoo Finance, MarketWatch, Morningstar and your broker’s website are just a few of the places you can find this data.

So while corporate investors can readily compare the financial statistics of a safe company like Apple to an insolvent one like Radio Shack, municipal investors cannot easily perform the same exercise for Dallas and Detroit.

It wasn’t always this way. Between 1909 and 1931, the Census Bureau published an annual volume entitled “Financial Statistics of Cities Having a Population of Over 30,000.” The final edition — available at the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s website — covered 311 American cities and included hundreds of revenue, expenditure, asset and liability data points for each municipality. Unfortunately, ever since 1931, Census financial data on local governments has become less comprehensive, less timely and less comprehensible to the lay user.

In the years after 1931, we lost the understanding that comparative local-government financial statistics were a public good. While we might look to the federal government to once again offer this this information in today’s era of heightened need, it may be challenged to take on this role in an era of sequesters.

But while we may need the private sector to provide this public good, the federal government can greatly reduce the cost of compiling a local-government financial-statement database. The SEC has required companies to file financial statements in text form — rather than via PDF — since the mid-1990s. In 2008, the SEC further standardized company financial reporting by requiring firms to file their statements in the form of eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), which imposes a consistent format on all filings. To date, neither the SEC nor the MSRB has pursued a similar course with respect to municipal financial disclosure.

Next week, the Data Transparency Coalition, a group that advocates for the use of XBRL, will hold a Financial Regulation Summit featuring numerous congressional representatives and regulators. Perhaps the extension of XBRL to the municipal-bond market can find its way onto the agenda….(More)

Full Post: The Missing Information That Municipal-Bond Investors Need

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