While Tauberer was conceiving and developing GovTrack, a community of like-minded advocates was beginning to form across the country. As founder of one of the oldest and most influential open-data websites, he was immediately thought of as a leading figure in that group.
“When you think about open data in this particular web-facing context, Josh has basically been doing it for a very long time,” says David Robinson, founding associate director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, whose company, Robinson+Yu, consults on public policy related to the Internet. “He has far more experience than most of the people who work on these issues have.”
In 2007, Tauberer was among the 30 experts—including Harvard law professor and copyright-reform advocate Lawrence Lessig W’83 [“Constitutionalist in Cyberspace,” November 1998] and Tim O’Reilly, founder of the O’Reilly Media Group—who met in Sebastopol, California, to compose the eight principles of open government data, a document that has guided government bodies from the state of New Hampshire to the Obama administration on how they should release their data.
Around the same time, Tauberer also participated in the Open House Project, a group formed at the request of then soon-to-be Speaker of the HouseNancy Pelosi to advise the House of Representatives on how to make its data more transparent and open. In addition to helping write the report, Tauberer—then also in the midst of his doctoral studies in Philadelphia—traveled to Washington to present the findings. “C-SPAN covered it, which was fun … and exciting, of course!” Tauberer says, though no action resulted.
Tauberer and other advocates—such as Schuman, who previously worked at The Sunlight Foundation, a leading activist organization on transparency issues—have continued to lobby the House to adopt their advice. In particular, they want to see the release of the original government database that Tauberer has been trying to get since 2001.
“This is not an issue where we lose on the facts, right?” says Schuman. “People have a right to this information; it’s not expensive to make it available in a way that it should be; they should just do it!”
One obstacle, according to Schuman, is that the institutions that actually control the data, the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office, are afraid that releasing them in raw form will hurt their budgets: if they make all their data available and don’t do anything with it, why would the government fund them? “It’s a stupid fear, but that’s their fear,” he says, adding, “they aren’t known for their dynamic leadership.”
The current political environment—in which “Congress runs by crisis,” says Schuman—makes it even more difficult to get the government to pay attention to something so technically complex, and which is not a subject of immediate, and loud, public concern.
Still, there are some promising signs. A new website called Congress.gov, designed to replace the outdated THOMAS platform and similar to GovTrack in the sense that it offers a step-by-step guide to what is happening in Congress, is out in a beta version. The House of Representatives also held a task force last year on open government data (to which Tauberer submitted ideas), and is expected to release its recommendations sometime before the end of the year. Tauberer and Schuman are hopeful that those recommendations will include finally making the Library of Congress data available to the public.
And there is also some optimistic news coming from the White House, which has had a mixed record in this area. On President Obama’s first day in office he published a memorandum on open government, which “was quite forward thinking, and it said we’re going to focus on transparency and public participation and collaboration,” says Tauberer.
Though there is still a lot more to do, he adds, in many ways the administration has made great progress toward that goal. They produced a website, Data.gov, which is a catalog of datasets compiled by the Executive Branch, and urged other agencies to follow suit. Tauberer actually helped build one of these websites—the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health.gov, which gives the public access to the vast amounts of health data it collects. This is especially useful for medical researchers, who can now use the government’s data in their studies.
And in May the White House issued a memorandum defining open data that uses the definition Tauberer helped write back in 2007, mandates that government agencies should make their data open, and calls for collecting data in a way that facilitates making it open (such as not mixing classified and non-classified information, which delays the process and makes it harder to release data to the public).
While these are certainly steps in the right direction, the open government data community still has a few concerns. Some relate to specific clauses in the White House’s recent memorandum—which, for example, leaves a lot of room for agencies to withdraw information because of speculative rather than demonstrated national security concerns. Other worries relate to incidents that have occurred during the Obama administration that aren’t great for transparency in general (the Associated Press phone-record and NSA scandals, Obama’s fierce prosecutions of whistleblowers, the lack of information on drones, etc.).
Outside of lobbying, Tauberer has also completed other projects to build the open data community. Besides his 2012 book, which details his “principles for a transparent government and an engaged public,” he co-founded POPVOX, a site that helps constituents share their opinion with Congress easily. He also sponsors hackathons that bring together developers to invent new apps and websites that might help open government data.
But even if Tauberer just ran GovTrack, he would be making a huge difference, says Harper, because he is getting us one step closer to having lots of facts and hard information about politics. “It helps guide the way. It’s a model; he’s sort of doing research and development for the House Clerk’s office or the Government Printing Office,” he says. “If they see that it’s been done, they know that it can be done, and they feel pressure to do it. Because it might be a little bit embarrassing to have one guy with a website doing a better job publishing information than your own huge organization.”
Alyson Krueger C’07 is a freelance writer in New York and a frequent Gazette contributor.