All D.C. residents are expected to abide by the D.C. Code, a compilation of all city laws and regulations. But until recently, most residents didn’t have easy online access to the code itself. A coalition of advocates and civic hackers recently released a new website, DCDecoded.org, which attempts to shed light on the inner workings of local government. Kojo talks with advocates inside and outside government about the promise and limitations of open government initiatives.

Guests

  • V. David Zvenyach General Counsel, D.C. Council
  • Traci Hughes Director, DC Office of Open Government
  • Seamus Kraft Executive Director & Co-Founder, OpenGov Foundation
  • Josh Tauberer "civic hacker" and founder, GovTrack.us

Transcript

  • 13:23:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt began with a simple request. Last year a local activist named Tom McWright (sp?) wanted to build an app for D.C. bikers, one that linked to the city's bicycle laws. So he asked the D.C. government for a digital copy of the D.C. Code, the official collection of all city laws from gun regulations to election rules to traffic laws. It turned out D.C. law could not be downloaded legally. The paper version clocks in at 23 volumes and you can read it at the Martin Luther King Library or shell out $850 to actually buy it.

  • 13:23:59

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou can find it online for free through DC.gov but that version's controlled by a private publisher and it cannot be downloaded. So McWright and a team of like-minded activists and government workers set out to free the Code. Last week a new website called D.C.Decoded.org went live promising to bring the laws of D.C. to, well, us non-lawyers.

  • 13:24:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Traci Hughes. She is director of the D.C. Office of Open Government. Traci, good to see you again.

  • 13:24:30

    MS. TRACI HUGHESThank you. Nice to be here.

  • 13:24:32

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Seamus Kraft. He is executive director and cofounder of the OpenGov Foundation. Seamus Kraft, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:24:40

    MR. SEAMUS KRAFTThanks for having me.

  • 13:24:42

    NNAMDIAnd Josh Tauberer is a civic hacker and founder of GovTrack.us. He did some consulting work for this project. Josh Tauberer, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:24:51

    MR. JOSH TAUBERERGood to be here.

  • 13:24:52

    NNAMDIAnd V. David Zvenyach is general counsel with the D.C. Council. David Zvenyach, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:25:01

    MR. V. DAVID ZVENYACHThat's for having me.

  • 13:25:02

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation. It's 800-433-8850 or email to kojo@wamu.org. Have you tried to read or download the laws of your local jurisdiction? How did that work out for you, 800-433-8850? Seamus, I'm not a lawyer and for people like myself, the D.C. Code is not exactly a page turner. I don't know why David brought two volumes of it here for me, as if I'm going to read it. Why is it important that this document be available for download?

  • 13:25:31

    KRAFTWell, the law is the source code of this community. Everything from parking rules to election laws, it's all in the Code. And in this day and age that's the most important information that you as a citizen would eventually need. And we wanted to use all the technology that we have at our fingertips today to make it fully accessible to you. And accessible means downloadable, searchable and getting it understandable.

  • 13:25:56

    KRAFTSo things like legal ease and jargon, we can solve that with things like hover over definitions to help break down the barriers that exist between a citizen and this most important civic information.

  • 13:26:07

    NNAMDIJosh Tauberer, how did this site DCDecoded.org come into existence? How and why?

  • 13:26:16

    TAUBERERWell, a year ago Tom McWright was looking at what was available and saw that the official website for the Code had a terms-of-service agreement that made it illegal to copy, and there were copyright considerations. And he started to ask other activists who've worked on problems like this, how do we fix this problem? And he turned to Dave and asked, can we just get an electronic copy of the Code? And he wanted to take that copy and mash it up and create something new out of it.

  • 13:26:44

    TAUBERERAnd so he talked to Dave and Tom talked to me and I talked to Tom and we all thought about it. And I worked with Dave's office on getting the electronic documents, transferring them into a format that was more useable for outsiders. And then Tom and other civic hackers in the community and Seamus got involved on taking these data files and building a really useful website out of them.

  • 13:27:06

    NNAMDIWhy did Tom McWright want this document in the first place?

  • 13:27:09

    TAUBERERWell, he was interested in the laws that governed him. He was a biker. He works for a company that works on mapping products, and so he's interested in roads and transit. And the laws affect how we're able to participate in our community and get to work and so on. And issues of whether we can copy it and share these important laws is very (word?) for a lot of geeks like Tom and myself.

  • 13:27:34

    NNAMDITraci Hughes, you are the inaugural director of the D.C. Office of Open Government. What's your office supposed to do and how does this website fit into that mission?

  • 13:27:43

    HUGHESWell, that's a $50 million question. The office is relatively new. I'm the first person to actually be in that job and I've been here for less than a year. So the mission of the office is to ensure that government operations at every level are open and transparent. And ultimately all the information that's made available through the Office of Open Government site is really meant to engage people with district government.

  • 13:28:09

    HUGHESHence, the reason for decoding the D.C. Code, because ultimately what we want is for anyone who wants to access the district laws is to be able to understand them, because if people can understand them they can better engage with our government, and hopefully have an impact on the laws that are passed.

  • 13:28:28

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. Has technology made governments more open and more accountable in your opinion? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. David Zvenyach, you were a little bit skeptical that there was a problem here in the first place because the D.C. Code has always been, well, theoretically available online, even if it was on a clunky website. But it's my understanding that you began to see it differently when you started to learn how to code yourself. What does this issue look like from within government?

  • 13:29:06

    ZVENYACHWell, about a year ago I got the phone call and the email from Tom McWright, and I basically stoned him. I didn't really think that it was a big deal. I didn't see the utility of it. And it was happy for everybody that I saw the light. And since seeing the light I've actually had a little bit of opportunity to do this myself. And since doing it myself, I've realized that coding and opening up the Code has actually made my life as a government lawyer easier.

  • 13:29:32

    ZVENYACHFrankly, I am a lawyer. I do use the Code on a daily basis. And the reason I brought two volumes of the D.C. Code is to show you that if I wanted to research something simple, I would have to have two volumes of the Code. I'd have the index and the Code, and now I can use my phone. And it's those types of advantages that didn't exist a year ago that do. And previously I would've had to ask the vendor, could you build an app for my phone? And I'd have to pay money for it. I've have to go through the procurement process.

  • 13:29:59

    ZVENYACHAnd now because the Code is available on line all I have to do is rely on people that are doing it themselves to make it available for me. And it's been a real learning experience but something that's good for everybody, including the government.

  • 13:30:12

    NNAMDIAnd that, ladies and gentlemen, is the answer to the question, what happens when a lawyer walks into a bar and learns how to code. Traci, David, you know that over the last five or six years we've heard a lot about the power of open data on the web to make governments more accountable, more transparent. And we've heard a lot about how forward thinking our local government here is in D.C. And we've heard that not just from officials, we've heard it from activists who work with them. And I'm trying to square that storyline with a more well-known series of stories about elected officials who have been sent to jail for corruption.

  • 13:30:46

    NNAMDIWhat does it say about the efficacy of open government if all that open data exists side by side with corruption? In other words, do we know about the corruption because we have open institutions, or is the real nature of corruption so insidious that it can't be quantified with existing datasets? I'll start with you, David.

  • 13:31:09

    ZVENYACHWell, I probably can't answer the bigger question, Kojo, but on the narrow side, I think that what is actually made open matters. So for example, the D. C. Code was open. You could go on the internet, you could look at it but it wasn't accessible in the way that people who wanted to use it could use it. You couldn't download it, you couldn't link to it. And without being able to download it or link to it, you can't actually access the bike laws. So it's really important how you present the data. And so it's not enough just to have the data available. It's also how you present that data that matters.

  • 13:31:41

    NNAMDITraci.

  • 13:31:43

    HUGHESI think the reason that you're seeing the discrepancy is that when we talk about open government and open data under open government, that also implies a culture shift that must also take place. As a government, we need to get away from, you know, wanting to harbor information, although the data is made available. It's really not going to be particularly useful if the only people who understand it are the people in the government who are generating it.

  • 13:32:09

    HUGHESUltimately, and call me crazy, I think that the data that is made available, district residents, the people who pay tax dollars are the people who own that data. So they should be able to access it, understand it and use it in a way that's helpful for them.

  • 13:32:24

    NNAMDISame question to you finally, Josh Tauberer.

  • 13:32:27

    TAUBERERWell, there are different types of open data that the government can product. And on one end of the spectrum is data that helps educate the public about how to interact with their own government better, how to be better citizens in a very broad sense. And I think that's the type of data that we've been working with on this project.

  • 13:32:42

    TAUBERERThere are a lot of other sorts of data, government-spending data like contracts and information about taxation and say police and emergency response times. That sort of data can go toward accountability, and there can be more resistance there from government to get access to it. But in -- for information about the laws, there's usually much less resistance. And the benefit is very different, very powerful, very broad.

  • 13:33:07

    NNAMDISeamus, if I want to be the Seamus that tracks down corruption in the D.C. government, does this help?

  • 13:33:14

    KRAFTI think it does. And I think the important thing to realize is that you can have a digital snow job just like governments can pour paper at reporters or citizens who are looking for answers. You can do the same thing with open data. You can pour APIs over the transom and force somebody to search through open datasets until they die. What we've done here with the D.C. Code is put a really useful application on top of that open data.

  • 13:33:42

    KRAFTSo this is something, if you can use Google you can use this. And when you see your elected officials acting in a way that might not be consonant with what you want or expect or deserve from them, you can come up here and actually look at their job description very quickly and easily. And you don't have to be a web developer or software geek to do it anymore.

  • 13:34:02

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Holly in Silver Spring, Md. Holly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:10

    HOLLYYes. This is a very important topic and I'm glad that you've brought it up. I am an attorney. I was handling a pro bono case for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless last fall, and made the error of thinking that I could rely on the online version of the D.C. Code that you find at DC.gov website. Only to find out that it's extremely out of date. So even an attorney trying to get the latest information would be misled.

  • 13:34:45

    HOLLYIt doesn't tell you that it's not up to date and it -- I mean, I finally found the information that I needed but the only way to get the most up-to-date version is to pay for one of the Westlaw Lexis services. And it's just a tremendous service to pro bono attorneys, even to individuals that just want to find out what is the current law.

  • 13:35:07

    NNAMDIDavid Zvenyach, would our caller Holly's experience be any different today?

  • 13:35:13

    ZVENYACHNot today but hopefully in about six months it will be. The council has been undertaking a project called the Cranch Project and I won't bother you with what Cranch is, although if you were an attorney you've seen the name from Marbury against Madison. The Cranch Project is basically an effort to keep the Code up to date online in a more timely manner.

  • 13:35:35

    ZVENYACHConification is a complicate thing. It usually takes weeks, sometimes months to keep the Code up to date. And it was in paper format. That was the norm. But as the internet has become the place to go for legal information, it's more and more and more important that we keep the code up to date quickly. And so the council's working on a project -- actually I've been working with Josh Tauberer on this project. And we think that by this time next year you'll be able to go on the internet, find the Code, have it be official and rely on it in a court of law.

  • 13:36:08

    NNAMDIMore about William Cranch later but I wanted to get to this -- to stay with this issue for a while. Josh, Traci, there's a deeper philosophical principle at play here. The government passes laws in service of the citizens of the city. We should be able to see that however we want to see it. And it's extremely problematic if a private company asserts ownership over it. Who actually owns the law?

  • 13:36:33

    TAUBERERWell, I guess it depends on who you ask. There are states that are trying to claim as much copyright as they can over the law. And when we began this a year ago, D.C. claimed copyright over the D.C. Code. And Dave can explain the strategic reason behind that. But we changed that. We're not using creative common CC0 waiver over the D.C. Code so that D.C. waives copyright. And it's now owned by everyone and by not one.

  • 13:37:04

    TAUBERERBut yeah, this is -- it's changing and we hope that other jurisdictions follow in using CC0.

  • 13:37:10

    NNAMDIWho owns the law? Is it me, I, the taxpayer?

  • 13:37:14

    HUGHESWell, I'm coming from the perspective that district residents, citizens own the law. And that's why there's been this push, at least on my end in the open government office, to make this kind of information available. And what I would hope doesn't get lost in the discussion here is that of course we've got lawyers and those who are knowledgeable about the district code who are most interested in seeing DC decoded and looking at the law.

  • 13:37:41

    HUGHESBut we can't forget that there's an entire segment of the city where their only access to the internet is through their Smartphones. They don't necessarily have a PC. So what I'm also hoping is, too, this going to have an inevitable effect, in addition to getting the people to engage with local government, is that it will bring the D.C. Code and information about our laws to a larger segment of the city that is traditionally forgotten about. And those are those people who may not have broadband or internet access at home but who are looking for information about district government and trying to access city services over their Smartphones.

  • 13:38:16

    NNAMDIHolly, does that give you some hope for the future?

  • 13:38:19

    HOLLYWell, I'm curious to know if the D.C. Code decoded is -- how up-to-date that's going to be kept.

  • 13:38:27

    NNAMDIDavid.

  • 13:38:28

    ZVENYACHWell, it's dependent on the underlying D.C. Code, the ideas that once the Cranch Project completes this year then D.C. Decoded will be updated as frequently as the D.C. Code. One thing I should not though on the copyright issue, because I think this is important, is that the D.C. official Code that is printed in hardbound copy has case annotations. So this is not just the laws that are passed by lawmakers, but also the annotations that are made by the vendors. And that's where, you know, the battleground is sort of laid out in terms of the copyright issue.

  • 13:38:59

    ZVENYACHOn the actual laws that are passed by elected officials and put together by the codification council, there's no dispute about that. That is public domain.

  • 13:39:09

    NNAMDIOh, you invoked the Cranch name twice so far so I guess we should tell our audience who, in D.C. legal history, was William Cranch.

  • 13:39:17

    ZVENYACHSure. Judge William Cranch was a reporter for the United States Supreme Court. Every lawsuit at some point has seen his name through Marbury against Madison. But he was also a chief judge at the D.C. Court of Appeals back in the 1800s. And for our purposes, the reason that he's important is he was also tasked with creating the first code of laws for the District of Columbia.

  • 13:39:38

    ZVENYACHThis was not an easy thin. There was a great deal of common law that existed from England to common law from Virginia and Maryland. And it was his job to put together a single code of laws. Suffice it to say he was successful in putting together a code of laws, although it wasn't ultimately adopted. And it wasn't until much, much later that we finally got our code of laws in the District of Columbia. We're hoping that this technology will speed this along in our case and we'll have a code of laws that's up to date by the end of this fiscal year.

  • 13:40:04

    NNAMDIIn many ways, the idea of a D.C. Code or a United States Code, for that matter, was very radical when it was first introduced. And I was surprised just how recent they are. Congress didn't even try to write down a comprehensive list of its own laws until the end of the 19th century. How was law practiced before then?

  • 13:40:22

    ZVENYACHWell, it was complicated. Until the 1920s, the United States Code didn't exist as a corpus. The way that it worked is that Congress would pass a law, and then a subsequent Congress would pass another law. And it was the job of lawyers and the courts to try to reconcile all of those different laws. And then at some point in the 1900s people thought maybe there is a better way to do things. And so they created the United States Code. And, I'll tell you, it's sort of an early -- it's a prodo open government project to have all of the body of law in one place. It hasn't been without controversy.

  • 13:40:53

    ZVENYACHAnd I can't say that it's an easy process. Almost half of the United States Code and about half of the D.C. Code is what's called unenacted. And I won't bore your listeners with that. But suffice it to say that the code is a way for the public and for lawyers and for Congress to know what Congress has done in the past. And that was a pretty novel innovation in the 1900s.

  • 13:41:15

    NNAMDIYou're not boring them. Our audience love this stuff. We're taking a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on "D.C. Decoded: Open Data, Open Government" and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. What kind of information do you want from your local government? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about D.C. Decoded, the website DCDecoded.org. We're talking with Traci Hughes, director of the DC Office of Open Government, Seamus Kraft is executive director and co-founder of the OpenGov Foundation, David Zvenyach is general counsel with the D.C. Council, and Josh Tauberer is a "civic hacker" and founder of GovTrack.us. He did some consulting work for this project. Josh, I used the term "civic hacker" to describe you, mostly because that was the way you describe yourself. For those who are not familiar with the term, what is a civic hacker?

  • 13:44:04

    TAUBERERSo civic hacking is a creative approach to solving problems in our civic lives. And our civic lives are our interaction with government. And so a classic civic hacking case would be building an app to help people register vote and how to understand who the candidates are and so on. So you may be familiar with hacking used a bit differently. So hacking is a homonym, it has two meanings. And there's one that's sort of like cybercrime. But words like mouse or fluke or gay, this word has two meanings. There's another meaning that is about being creative and trying to solve problems in a positive way.

  • 13:44:41

    TAUBERERAnd civic hacking is that positive version of hacking.

  • 13:44:44

    NNAMDIYou've worked on these issues for a long time. You created one of the earliest websites allowing citizens to follow legislation as it goes from bill to law with a site called GovTrack. How has this conversation evolved over the past decade or so?

  • 13:44:58

    TAUBERERWell, it's gotten deeper. When I first started working on this about 10 years ago, there was only a very small community interested in open data. And since then, there are now hundreds just in D.C., thousands of people worldwide interested in open data. Last month I ran with some other folks, Open Data Day, in D.C., held at the World Bank. And we had 300 people packed into two not-so-large rooms, all interested in using whatever skills they had -- not all coders -- to find some interesting data and to understand better, things about corruption and D.C. education and all sorts of things.

  • 13:45:36

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you tried to read or download laws of your local jurisdiction? Has technology, in your view, made governments more open and accountable? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Or if you have any other questions or comments about open government, you can also send email to kojo@wamu.org. Traci, Seamus, Louis Brandeis famously said that sunlight was the best disinfectant. The government works best when it's functions are in the open. Much of the high-tech conversation about open government focuses on data and programming languages.

  • 13:46:12

    NNAMDIBut ultimately this is really about storytelling, right? About being able to explain how government works, why certain decisions were made. Do you think the current landscape of open government platforms is delivering on that promise yet?

  • 13:46:27

    HUGHESHere, in D.C., no. But I'm hopeful. We're making significant progress. In 2011, Mayor Gray issued an order that essentially said that all District government was to have this transparency plan. And as part of this plan, all the agencies were to submit their policy for how they're going to make their information and their data available. Nothing ever happened on that until I started in this role and have just been nudging them along. Now, thankfully I can say that they have taken my recommendations to heart.

  • 13:47:00

    HUGHESAnd much thanks to the coding community and the developer community who have embraced me right away, because I quickly learned that I don't know anything about this. I'm just looking at it from the perspective of how I would prefer to see information out there. But we're making very good progress, you know, making information available in this way, I think is the 21st century of FOIA, because people just have an expectation that certain information be made available naturally and organically, rather than having to go through a formal process.

  • 13:47:33

    HUGHESAnd I think that open data in this regard is just a normal extension of that.

  • 13:47:37

    NNAMDISeamus, same question.

  • 13:47:39

    KRAFTI think it's starting to. I think you have to start with real people trying to solve real problems in real communities. And we all know the district has lots of problems inside its government and inside the larger community. How can we built information into the solutions there? And increasingly people are going online to access information to solve problems in their daily lives or work with constituents to respond to their needs. And I think that that's what we see here with D.C. Decoded and the larger America Decoded network.

  • 13:48:10

    KRAFTIf you go to americadecoded.org, you'll see there are other states and other cities in America who are decoding their laws to serve citizens better. There a lot of -- there are a few points on that map but we need to put a lot more. And we're early days in open government and open data. And as this becomes a more regular process for government to put information on line with application layers that make that information useful to real people, that's when you'll start to solutions coming up in the open government.

  • 13:48:37

    NNAMDIEarly days is right. It's my understanding D.C. is only the fifth city in the nation to do this so far. But, Josh, it's one thing to be able to get this code in your hands or onto your computer screen, another thing altogether to make it make sense. How hard is that?

  • 13:48:52

    TAUBERERWell, it depends on the type of data. The D.C. Code is a very complicated thing and it takes some understanding to know where in the Code you should be looking for something. And, in fact, knowing where the D.C. Code sits in relation to D.C. municipal regulations and case law and other aspects. So it actually -- it takes a community to invest in some of these before you can make heads or tails of it. I'm a member of Code for D.C. And in Code for D.C. there's a project about the D.C. education system.

  • 13:49:20

    TAUBERERAnd it's taken a large team of folks to work with OSSE and local officials to understand what the system is before you can build an application on top of it. But then you get to the end -- hopefully you get to the end of this process and you can really build something that people can use once they're interested in it.

  • 13:49:35

    KRAFTSeamus, anything you'd like to add to that?

  • 13:49:38

    KRAFTI would agree with that. It's very Tocquevillian. I would like to think, if Alexis de Tocqueville came to America today, this is what he would be writing about, because no one of us could have done this by ourselves. We've got Traci and David from inside of government who are looking to serve their constituents better, more accountably and more efficiently. And then you have guys like me and Josh on the outside, who are trying to help those public servants do their job by citizens better. And that's what de Tocqueville was writing about in the 1840s, 1830s.

  • 13:50:09

    KRAFTInstead of the printing press and those nasty big-bound volumes that David brought with him, we've got iPhones and computers.

  • 13:50:16

    NNAMDITraci, the Bureau of Ethics and Accountability is in charge of the city's ethics laws and it can investigate alleged violations of those laws by D.C. employees. The Open Government Office enforces the Open Meetings Act. What are the rules involving open meetings?

  • 13:50:34

    HUGHESWell, essentially what the Open Meetings Act says is that anytime that there's a gathering of a quorum of a public body that's gathered to conduct District government business, that that meeting must be held in open and in the public, and that there has to be some detailed documentation of that meeting in the form of meeting minutes or a transcript. But most importantly, the Open Meetings Act requires that any time a public body does gather, that members of the public are invited and allowed the opportunity to participate.

  • 13:51:09

    HUGHESSo, you know, that law has been on the books for a few years as well. And I do have to say, in my traveling around the city and training them -- there are I think close to 190 boards and commissions -- many of the boards and commissions, until my arrival, were very confused about how to apply the law, the Open Meetings Act, and many of them didn't know that it existed. So we're still making significant progress, but there's a lot to be done in terms of District government opening its doors and allowing District residents to actually engage with their government.

  • 13:51:42

    NNAMDIAnd how can that law be amended in what appears, to members of the public and the media, to be an arbitrary way. We're talking about the 77-year-old man who died earlier this year of a heart attack after he collapsed outside of a fire station, didn't receive immediate help from the fire station, officer in charge of that station currently facing charges of neglect through the department's internal trial board system. And members of the press and the family of the man who died have protested that they have been barred from witnessing the proceedings.

  • 13:52:12

    NNAMDIDo these kinds of hearings fall under an Open Meeting statute? And, if not, why not?

  • 13:52:18

    HUGHESIt does fall under the Open Meetings Act. But there are several exceptions to the Open Meetings Act. In particular, what is occurring with the trial board, there is an exception under the Open Meetings Act that essentially states that any time there's a public body that is serving as a quasi-judicial matter to hear information concerning an investigation, which is what was occurring in this instance, that portion of the meeting can be closed to the public. However, what the Open Meetings act is very clear about is that there should always be made available a portion of that meeting that should be open to the public.

  • 13:52:56

    HUGHESAnd that any time a public body is going into a closed session, that has to be clearly indicated on the record.

  • 13:53:03

    NNAMDIHas your office had a complaint referred to it yet about this hearing?

  • 13:53:07

    HUGHESNo, but I did see all the Twitter traffic about it. Yes.

  • 13:53:09

    NNAMDISo you're expecting one?

  • 13:53:11

    HUGHESYes, yes.

  • 13:53:12

    NNAMDIDavid, you and Traci both work on Freedom of Information Act requests. And it occurs to me that the way that whole process works is quite opaque. Let's say, I'm someone on the outside of government interested in contracting because I've got a hunch that something fishy is going on with a specific contract. A lot of what I'm asking for is by nature a guessing game, right? What obligation does government have to make it easier for me or people like me to ask it, the government, difficult questions?

  • 13:53:40

    ZVENYACHSure. Well, the Freedom of Information Act gives you a right to request documents. The documents that you're requesting sound like they'd most likely be in the public -- they'd be available to the public. There may be -- in procurement, there may be proprietary information that need to be kept -- to be withheld. But in general, the District government has an obligation to respond to you within 15 business days and you have an entitlement if the District fails to do that, to sue us in court. And that's a right that's been around since the beginning of home rule and it's one that I don't see going anywhere.

  • 13:54:15

    NNAMDICare to comment, Traci?

  • 13:54:16

    HUGHESYeah, the Open Government Office, one of the nice utilities of the office is that I serve in the capacity as the FOIA officer for the city. So it's my job to make sure that it's an efficient process for both the government and for people requesting information. So people can certainly come to me. And there have been several occasions over the past few months where there's information that should be proactively disclosed, is not. I've been able to work with the agencies to do that. So all that the requestors have to do is just go to a link on that agency's site for information.

  • 13:54:47

    HUGHESBut if anyone's finding it difficult to get information, my office is there as a resource. And it's my job to work with the agencies to get requestors the information that they're seeking.

  • 13:54:57

    ZVENYACHAnd my assistant general counsel would kill me for saying this but if you ever have FOIA request for the council, feel free to email me at davidz@dccouncil.us.

  • 13:55:05

    NNAMDIDeceased.

  • 13:55:08

    NNAMDIWe got this tweet from @laurahmarks. She says her D.C. OpenGov dream would be a transparent D.C. Public Schools budget, so stakeholders can demand accountability. To which you say what, Traci?

  • 13:55:23

    HUGHESI say follow OSSE's lead. Recently OSSE released a slew of open data, everything that you wanted to know about OSSE. But that was due, in large part, and you all correct me if I'm wrong, because the coding and developer community was clamoring for this information. So I say D.C. Public Schools just follow OSSE's lead. It's not very scary. Just do it.

  • 13:55:45

    NNAMDIJosh Tauberer, this is something you've been working on.

  • 13:55:47

    TAUBERERWell, I would say, come to the next meeting of Code for D.C. Look up codefordc.org, and there are folks there that are working on that.

  • 13:55:55

    NNAMDIDavid, law is not a static thing. New laws and regulations are passed, others are struck down by judges. How can we be sure there's a law that appears that appears on a site like DCDecoded is actually still in effect?

  • 13:56:06

    ZVENYACHWell, you can't in an easy way. The code is evolving, it's not static. There will be laws that are struck down. There will be laws that have changed since the last time the code was published. And the obligation to a certain extent is on the Council to keep the code current. And so that's one of the things that we're working on.

  • 13:56:28

    ZVENYACHBut the other point is that, as Josh sort of noted earlier, there has to be an ecosystem that exists for the D.C. Municipal Regulations, the D.C. Court of Appeals, the D.C. Superior Court and others, that are putting together and putting out information so that it would be easier, though not easy, for someone to know what the law is at any given point in time.

  • 13:56:49

    NNAMDISeamus, does data sometimes end up biasing the kinds of stories one chooses to tell? Journalists love to tell stories about money and politics, mostly because there's a common perception that too often our political leaders are up for sale. But it also helps that there are huge databases available that can help tell that specific story, since political campaigns have to report where their money comes from. Does that mean that sometimes we are biased towards telling those stories because there's data that can be picked apart and that may mean that we end up missing entire stories, entire facets of how power is exercised?

  • 13:57:22

    KRAFTI would absolutely agree with you on that. And I think it's part of the same reason why you rob banks, well that's where the money is. To date, a lot of the money and a lot of the data in politics has been around partisan political campaigns. That's just a fact. And that's where the sexy stories have been. We're working on the other 364 days a year. When government can really impact your life, it's when members are elected and they're in office and are spending your hard-earned tax dollars. There's a dearth of good people inside and outside of government working on that because you don't get rich.

  • 13:58:01

    KRAFTAnd we hope to solve that one user, by one user with DCDecoded.org.

  • 13:58:06

    NNAMDISeamus Kraft is executive director and co-founder of OpenGov Foundation. Traci Hughes is director of the DC Office of Open Government. Josh Tauberer is a "civic hacker" and founder of GovTrack.us. And David Zvenyach is general counsel with the D.C. Council. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," the rise of the bots. Companies have long used algorithms to predict books or movies you'd enjoy. Now, programs are generating news article and writing jokes on Twitter.

  • 13:58:40

    NNAMDITech Tuesday explores the future of automation on the Web. Then at 1:00, building the modern library. We talk with top librarians from Northern Virginia, Maryland and D.C. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.

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