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Open Government on the Internet: A New Era of Transparency

Conference focuses on the importance of open/free government information; role of the Internet 
Vivek Kundra, Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), Senator Bill Bradley, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs Featured Speakers 

AUSTIN, Texas-- May 15, 2009-- On May 15, 2009, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas co-sponsored and hosted a day-long conference titled "Open Government on the Internet: A New Era of Transparency." The event was held in the Frank C. Erwin Atrium on the top floor of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The conference consisted of a series of speakers and panel discussions, as well as questions from the audience. One speaker in the morning and one panel in the afternoon appeared via Internet-based videoteleconferencing with the Archer Center, the University of Texas' conference and classroom facility in downtown Washington, D.C. There was also a small audience of invited LBJ School alumni at the Archer Center.

The conference was largely the product of a Policy Research Project (PRP) at the LBJ School, a two-semester course supervised by Professor Gary Chapman of the LBJ School, in which 13 master's degree students investigated how to increase the transparency and online accessibility of government budgets, particularly the President's budget and the
budget for the State of Texas. This research task put students in touch with a constituency of people both inside and outside of government who are working on government transparency, an increasingly "hot" topic around the world. The PRP itself was also the extension into the LBJ School's curriculum of a dialog that had started at the LBJ Library in August 2007, when Library Director Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, former Senator Bill Bradley, and local Austin activist Silona Bonewald hosted a small group of experts to discuss a more transparent federal budget. This sequence and the collaboration between the Presidential Library and the graduate school of public policy represented an ideal partnership between the two institutions of the LBJ complex at UT Austin.

Senator Bill Bradley opened the May 15th "Open Government" event with remarks built around his vision for using the Internet for a more transparent and participatory federal government. He was followed by the new Chief Information Officer for the White House, Vivek Kundra, who spoke from Washington, D.C., via videoteleconferencing. Mr. Kundra described how open government and freedom of information were the subjects of President Obama's first two official statements as President, and he went on to discuss the first steps taken at the White House Office of Management and Budget, particularly the new Web site that offers open access to federal government databases, at data.gov.

Next to speak was Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who described her concerns about privacy in a new era of online transparency, especially the privacy of medical information and personally identifiable information that could lead to an increased risk of identity theft. A panel discussion of three speakers then followed: LBJ School Professor Sherri Greenberg, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives; another former House member, Talmadge Heflin, from the Texas Public Policy Foundation; and the editor of The Austin American-Statesman, Fred Zipp, who is also a board member of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation. The panel covered a range of issues about transparency in Texas, but all three speakers agreed on the need for more transparency in the Texas budgetary and appropriations processes.

Professor Gary Chapman was the last speaker of the morning session, before the mid-day lunch break. He said his role was to be the "bridge" to the more technology-oriented panels scheduled for the afternoon, by walking the audience through some of the large-scale trends in transparency today, including the emphasis on open standards data, public applications programming interfaces, and the "addressability" of data elements, meaning the ability of programmers to access data at its most relevant unit of analysis.

The conference provided a box lunch to attendees of the event, both in Austin and in Washington, D.C., and then the respective audiences reassembled for the afternoon program. This began with a panel of three speakers in Washington, D.C.:  John Wonderlich and Clay Johnson from the Sunlight Foundation; and Kshmendra Paul, Federal Enterprise Architecture Manager for the Office of Management and Budget. The three speakers covered what they view as the emerging agenda of transparency at the federal level, focused on new open data sources such as those on data.gov, which Mr. Paul oversees. The Sunlight Foundation supports innovative online development projects that tap such data sources and create new ways of monitoring government activity.

Three speakers in Austin made up the next panel: Damien Brockmann of the Texas Legislature, who developed the legislation-tracking Web site billhop.com; Conor Kenny of the Sunlight Foundation, who developed Congresspedia and OpenCongress.org; and Eric Gunderson, president of Development Seed, who demonstrated some examples of "crowd-sourcing" or leveraging the expertise of large numbers of people via the Web.

The conference was closed by Silona Bonewald, an Austin-based programmer and activist who started the League of Technical Voters and several transparency projects, including citability.org, which was the basis of her talk. Citability.org is a data-identifying scheme that uses permalinks, or permanent, unique Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) that allow Web users to link to specific elements of data, including budget line items, paragraphs in legislation, data in databases, etc. Permalinks that can be automatically generated for government information also allow programmers to build applications that can track changes in that information.

Agenda

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Related

Click here for LBJ School Student Naa Pappoe's op-ed "Take Transparency to the Next Level" in the Austin American Statesman

Click here to go to Interactive Budget Project web site to learn more about the research that was the genesis for the Open Government on the Internet Conference.