OKFestival 2014 Stories: Towards a standard open decisions API

This post was collaboratively written by Jogi Poikola and Markus Laine of Open Knowledge Finland, James McKinney of Open North, and Scott Hubli, Jared Ford, and Greg Brown of the National Democratic Institute. It’s cross-posted from the OpeningParliament Blog.

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At this year’s Open Knowledge Festival — a biennial gathering of open government advocates — there was considerable interest in moving toward greater standardization of APIs (application programming interface) relating to government decision-making processes. Web APIs help promote an open architecture for sharing content and data between communities and applications. Standardization of APIs for government decision-making data would allow tools built by civic innovators or governments to analyze or visualize data about government decision-making to be used across multiple jurisdictions, without needing to re-program the tool to accommodate differing data formats or ways of accessing the data.

Most government decision-making procedures involve similar processes (meetings, requests for public comment, etc.), decision-points (committee hearings, committee meetings, plenary sessions, etc.) and supporting documentation (agendas, draft legislation, information on voting records, etc.). Standardizing the ways that these types of information are structured allows tools for visualizing data about open government decision-making to be used across jurisdictions, as well as facilitating comparison of data and information.

To discuss the state of play with respect to open government decision-making APIs, Open Knowledge Finland, Open North, and the National Democratic Institute organized a session at the Open Knowledge Festival 2014 in Berlin to explore the possibilities for moving toward a global standard for APIs that deal with data on government decision-making.

ONGOING EFFORTS

The session began with brief discussion of current projects that seek to create international standards for either tools or specific types of government data, including Popolo, Poplus, Open Decisions API used in Helsinki and Jyväskylä and the Open Civic Data project.

Open Civic Data (OCD) provides an identifier system that can reliably identify political jurisdictions, which can be used to more easily link data on people, events, bills, and more. This project relies in part on Popolo, an international open government data specification that covers information related to the legislative branch, such as motions, votes, and organizational structures. While OCD and Popolo provide standards for data, a recently launched initiative called Poplus builds civic tech components, or small, generic technology tools that can be easily reused regardless of context, including tools to store and organize legislative bills or transcripts.

Similarly, city of Helsinki has developed Open Decisions API (called OpenAHJO), or a set of standards on decision-making data, including agendas, meeting documents, and other relevant types of information that speak to decision-making processes in municipal governments. Currently, this API is being used in the Finnish cities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä, with more cities in Finland expected to adopt the standard in the near future. Thus far, using the API for city data has made it easier for city officials to locate and use certain data and has simplified how citizens find and engage with city data. While the API currently works exclusively with municipal level data, there is no reason why such a standard couldn’t be adapted to work with different levels of government, such as national level parliaments or legislatures.

Other relevant examples are Akoma Ntoso, an XML schema for decision-making or legislative data, and Open 311, an international effort to standardize information about the status of municipal government service requests, such as filling potholes, trimming trees or fixing streetlights. All of these projects have been highly useful for the open government community.

FIRST STEPS TOWARDS STANDARDIZATION

The growing demand for greater standardization — both among civil society organizations and, increasingly, governments — speaks to the utility and value of these efforts. For civil society and the public, standardized data simplifies the process of analyzing and scrutinizing government data, which can vastly improve the public’s understanding of government decision-making processes. For governments, standardized decision-making data can cut costs, improve internal knowledge management practices, and encourage information sharing and collaboration across municipalities or governments. Standardized decision-making data may also promote increased collaboration and interaction between civil society and government. Given the potential value of expanding the coverage of a standard API for decision-making data, our session in Berlin focused primarily on one question: how can the open government community better support efforts toward convergence with respect to standardization of APIs for government open decision-making?

It was agreed that the first step in further developing and spreading an API for government open decision-making data is to collect use cases and needs that individuals, organizations, and governments may have, as well as to do a more comprehensive mapping of the API and data formats and tools that are currently being used. This is an important first step, and the initial coalition that was formed during the OK Fest session aims to work collaboratively to advance this process over the coming months.

The mapping would also help to assess how additional efforts toward standardization of APIs for government open decision-making data would build off and complement existing initiatives. There was broad consensus that demonstrating to governments how standardized decision data could simplify their work, cut costs, and generate mutually beneficial partnerships with civil society would help drive interest and buy-in. There was also agreement that, in addition to engaging the civic tech and government tech communities, it may also be helpful to engage more traditional international organizations that can play a role in credentialing and disseminating information on standards, such as the InterParliamentary Union (IPU), the international association of the world’s national parliaments, and United Cities and Local Governments, the organization that seeks to be the voice of and an advocate for democratic local self-government. In general, we found an emerging international consensus that government and parliamentary information should be shared in open and structured formats, a prerequisite for functional APIs. As stated by the IPU, “open document standards, such as XML, should be used to prepare proposed legislation and other parliamentary documentation. Eventually all documentation and media should be made available using open standards.” If a standardized API gains value by being spread widely, then considering effective strategies for proliferation early in the process will be important. Such organizations would also likely be engaged in decision-making bodies that help to update any emerging global norms that include their membership.

There are, of course, multiple questions that will need to be grappled with as this effort progresses. For example, there are questions about the definition and boundaries of government open decision-making data. There are wide varieties of decision-making processes that exist in different types and levels of democratic governments around the world, and it will be important to assess how effectively this diversity can be reflected in a shared structure for government open decision-making data. It is also a recognized that this work is highly political; therefore, we welcome any interested individuals to participate in this project. In the coming months, the organizers of the session look forward to helping continue the conversation in moving toward shared principles or standards for open government decision-making APIs.

WHAT’S NEXT?

While it is still early days, it was clear from the discussion there was a great deal of interest in how the open government community can collaborate to better support the efforts of governments to become more transparent and open to the citizens they serve, as well as supporting the efforts of citizens to have opportunities to become better informed and more engaged in decisions that affect their lives.

Compile related projects

Do you know of existing projects or initiatives that are related? Please add relevant links to the list here or tweet them with #opendecisions.

Join the discussion

We look forward to continuing this conversation. Currently, the discussion is happening in several international email-lists, such as the W3C Open Government list, Open Civic Data list, Poplus list, Akoma Ntoso list, Open Knowledge list, and the OpeningParliament.org list. We decided not to create yet another list, but encourage people to join existing ones. The topic will also be taken forward in related future events, such as Global Legislative Openness Week.

Contact us

The initial coalition will catch up via Skype later this autumn. If you wish to join, please contact us at open.decision.API@gmail.com.

Some Ideas for the Open Knowledge Festival

The following is a guest post by Panthea Lee, and originally appeared onreboot.org.

How can we ensure open government initiatives live up to their promise?

The movement for more open, accountable governments is gaining momentum the world over. But too often, open government initiatives are deployed without careful designs that enable them to achieve their intended objectives.

Exactly one year ago, I had the privilege to serve as the rapporteur for Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society and highlight some of the hurdles our community of practitioners must overcome to move toward the next phase of open government. This week, I’m especially excited to take that conversation further at the Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) in Berlin, where Reboot is leading a session titled “Opening Society in Challenging Contexts”.

In particular, we’re interested in not just highlighting hurdles, but actively discussing solutions.

How to enable participation in open government initiatives from hard-to-reach citizens? How to ensure governments provide meaningful responses to citizen input? How to move beyond trial of new platforms to sustained adoption and engagement? How to look beyond the numbers to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of our work?

These are the questions we seek to answer every day at Reboot. After building the world’s first national mobile voter registration system in Libya, implementing Africa’s first sub-national open data program in the Niger Delta, and—just this last week—launching “MyVoice”, an open source mobile tool for citizens to provide feedback on public healthcare delivery in rural Nigeria, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to realize the principles of open government in practice.

One question that cuts across each of these projects (and is relevant to OKFest) is how to use data—whether those provided by an institutional body, or generated through a project—to improve government accountability?

Conversations on open government data and governance data are often dominated by data providers, academics, and donor organizations. Conspicuously underrepresented are those whose actions they seek to influence (“data users”): governments and those that influence government behavior. The underrepresentation of these user voices in open government discussions means that discourse and action are biased towards the technical dimensions of data. Technical quality is important but insufficient.

Governance is ultimately about the structures and allocations of authority and power. Influencing governance processes therefore requires shifting the distribution of authority and power. Data platforms and products that seek to change governance outcomes in a particular context must be designed to respond to the social and political dynamics in that context.

Nudging data providers to think about the sociopolitical dimensions of data platforms and products means we can put the age-old saying of “context matters” into practice. The result could be, for example, a movement away from governance rankings that create competing goals of faring well globally and making progress locally, and toward measurement that better aligns government incentives with citizen needs. (To this end, we’ve been glad to see several peer organizations uniting around the Governance Data Alliance to improve governance data quality and usage. Going forward, we look forward to contributing to this network through its working group on User Feedback.)

We’d like to connect with those interested in better understanding how open government data can be leveraged to influence governance outcomes. If you are at OKFest and find yourself asking similar questions, come find us, we’d love to hear your thoughts! As with all our work, we aim to learn and share as we go. Reboot’s session is tomorrow (Wednesday, July 16) from 12:00pm–1:00pm in Space F2 (Kulturbrauerei), where I will be discussing some of our recent experiences and asking you to show off your creative problem-solving skills.

Thanks to Janet Haven for early conversations that helped shape some of this thinking.