Open Source Government Transparency Projects

A whole cadre of folks inside and outside government are awash with figuring out how to address the government transparency question brought on by the President’s Transparency and Open Government memo. At the end of last weekend’s TransparencyCamp, Clay Johnson, Director of Sunlight Labs, brought up the issue of bringing open source developers into the process of making government data transparent to the public. Open source developers are comprised of consultants, folks working at open source companies, and many others who spend their spare time working on open source development projects on a variety of topics. The question involves how they could be organized to work on government transparency projects.

I volunteered to look into how the SmartBuy effort in Government might possibly assist this. In the process of examining the larger problem, we are now investigating a two-forked approach:

1. Finding an easy method for allowing open source developers of all stripes to bid for jobs under the GSA schedule. This appears to be a relatively easy problem to solve. There needs to be a company willing to take on a “holding bin” type function with a simple contract that open source developers could sign on to in order to do work. This company could be newly formed, or far better, could be an existing company that already has IDIQ contracts with GSA. The real constraint is finding a company who will assume the risk associated with bringing potentially unknown developers into their contracting process. Bottom line, this appears to be a workable problem.

2. Finding a method to allow open source developers to work on free open source style transparency projects for the Government. This one may be harder. Perhaps Kundra, the newly appointed Federal CIO, already has an approach to this as part of his effort (someone post if that’s the case), but I haven’t seen it yet.

Open Source Government Transparency Projects (Twitter hash #osgtp): The idea here is that we need to find a method in Government to set up open source projects to make data available and transparent to the public.  Data in this case includes both the facts, figures and other details in consumable format that citizens and interest groups are interested in, and any software coding associated with extracting this data.  The advantage here is that resource-constrained agencies could create an open source projects to get their data more accessible to the public. If set up properly, those in the open source community could easily grab the data (or proto-data as the case may be) remotely work on stuff and post it back, to a site like Early investigation points to an approach where we have a government belly button for agencies to send their requests into, and perhaps may need a non-profit on the private sector who sets up the modern equivalent of a jobs posting board which developers can register for to work on the project.

The level of coordination required isn’t certain yet, nor is the legal details of how to make this work. But the advantages are clear. This would:

  • Provide resource-constrained agencies a method of meeting the Transparency & Open Government Directive.
  • Would allow citizens to participate more fully in the government transparency process.
  • Would allow the government to take leverage the power of the open source movement to make openness and transparency a reality.

We are just getting started on this (less than a week’s worth of effort) so if there is already a larger effort in place, someone point me to it! If not, is there any interest in this idea? If you want to join in the fun (govt and industry), now’s the time. What do we need to do to make Open Source Government Transparency Projects a reality? Twitter hash for this is #osgtp

Cross-posted on

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39 Responses to “Open Source Government Transparency Projects”

  1. I agree we need to be doing all of that. Thanks for expressing it, its nice to have somebody else working the problem.

    wh2 is now prepared in theory to do most of all of that, all we really need is some good influx of energy to get people using the wikis.

    That begs for a new crowd of wiki savvy type folks.

    “1. Finding an easy method for allowing open source developers of all stripes to bid for jobs under the GSA schedule.”

    What does that need for features?

  2. NoelDickover says:

    Hi prometheuspan, the main thing that’s needed for that is a company already under the GSA schedule that the open source community trusts to do work with. Aside from that, a jobs board type of function would be required. In terms of features, I’d need to think about that a bit more, but the thought is you would want to marry up like interests fairly seamlessly.

  3. Eric says:

    I worked with Erik Wilde and Raymond Yee in developing a site to help guide implementation of transparency measures. The (ugly and tech-focused) site is located at:

    The site has demonstrations and an accompanying report (all under a Creative Commons attribution license). We’ve developed a set of simulated data that conforms to the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) February 18th specifications for disclosure. These data are offered in a variety of human and machine-readable RESTful web services. We hope that this simulated data will help act as a guide for implementation federal agencies. We are already in communication with several agency officials and data architects at OMB.

    However, one topic that needs more attention is the issue about what kind of information is required for “transparency”. To help answer this question, we’re seeking feedback from the wider community. Do these data really help in offering a more meaningful level of transparency? What additional information would be required to make this even more useful for community oversight?


  4. NoelDickover says:

    Hi Eric, I just checked out your site. I think the larger problem is in getting large segments of the agencies to even agree on similar, let alone standard formats. I think your approach of offering up some options for govt agencies to use is terrific. The more exposure that possible options get, especially if there is a community behind it, the more likely government agencies will actually use this stuff.

    Regarding the information required for transparency, I think the answer is at least as much based on the operations and outputs an agency as the file format the data is delivered in. This is why notions of participation and collaboration are so important – dialogue is necessary to get a reasonable answer to this question, as the answer will be different in every agency. We know Kundra stresses both operational data as well as normal output data, but this still leads us to a rather wide open field.

    The other thought I had regarding data formats is whether you’ve talked with the Sunlight Foundation ( They are definitely in the front of the herd on this issue.

  5. yes, i was thinking about some sort of feature where persons would list their areas of expertise and knowledge and etc so that people could determine easily how much credibility their ideas and information have, and so that people could find each other and work together and etc by looking for people in the search engine aspect of it that are online and available with that knowledge etc.

    Maybe you can come on over and brainstorm some with us. Just asking these questions
    and pondering is fascinating… these are the thoughts we need to be moving through now.

    I’m not a business person, I’m a geek aspie polymath, so my ideas of functionality are
    created through the lens of what i imagine to be needed for my own use.

    Those with a clearer or more direct perspective on business and government should
    help us out with that. It can only be a brilliant and useful as the quality of feedback
    and process. Most people are used to non responsive admins and such… This is the opposite situation. Jim keeps upgrading the site everyday with new features, at a lightning fast pace for a programmer. Some minor features i have asked for were done in like under half an hour. I was floored. What we really need is a lucid couple of people to tell Gilliam what else it needs.

    Maybe you don’t know off the top of your head, but… the materials on your site lead me to believe you have given it a lot of thought and have a lot of insight.

    Thanks in any case for any time and energy,

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