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Designing Software to Shape Open Government Policy

Report ID:
August 2012
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Modern information technologies have transformed the meaning and promise of
"open government." The term originally stood for the ideas of government trans-
parency and public accountability. But with the rise of the Internet, "open government"
has grown to encompass a wide range of civic goals -- greater public
participation and increased government efficiency, among others -- newly enhanced by the
potential of digital technologies. Software now plays a key mediating role between
governments and citizens, and the design of software can both inform and shape the
effectiveness of open government policies.

In this dissertation, we explore government's role as an information provider in
the digital age. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to keep up with the rapid
pace of technological change, we contend that government should focus on enabling
others to innovate, by publishing its data in bulk, machine-readable formats. This
approach allows citizens to easily adapt government data for any desirable purpose
using the latest technological tools, rather than relying on a single government-provided

Despite its benefits, government may refuse to publish adaptable data for a variety
of reasons. Such is the case with the U.S. Courts, who maintain a harmful paywall
policy that limits access to electronic court records. We describe our pursuit to change
the Courts' policies through the development of the RECAP browser extension, which
we built to liberate records from the Courts' online access system. We analyze how
RECAP's core design features contributed to its widespread adoption, and impacted
the policy discourse. But even where government data are readily available, they may
still be difficult to comprehend. We study how the U.S. Congress' age-old legislative
process hinders the development of automated software with immense efficiency and
transparency benefits. We outline the steps that Congress would need to take to
modernize its process and embrace these improvements.

Finally, we discuss how recent "open government" policies have blurred the
distinction between political and technological openness. We propose a clearer framing
that separates the politics of public accountability from the technologies of open data,
which we hope will make both ideals easier to achieve.

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