Govt Info Map
Direct link to this page: http://copswiki.org/Common/GovtInfoMap
According to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "the most important office in a democracy is that of the citizen."
Unfortunately, our government is rarely given enough oversight and frequently seems to bend over backward to make it difficult to attend meetings and get public information. Citizens' Oversight Projects was founded to address the need to provide increased oversight of our governmental agencies, organizations, and related Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).
What we have found is not only that our citizenry hardly knows what their government really is, but government itself is now so large an convoluted that it does not know how it is composed. Frequently, we have asked cities about their commissions and task forces and they don't even have a comprehensive list. Even if you do have that list, where and when do they meet? Do they have a website? Who has seats on this governmental body, how are they elected or appointed, what is their term, and so forth. What is their budget? Where do they get their money? Do they give grants, and to whom?
There are a number challenges to this project:
- Although many agencies are very cooperative and are willing to give information, some may not be.
- Getting the information in a form which is searchable and machine processable is one thing, but keeping it up to date is another, especially concerning those attributes that change rapidly, such as who is on the board and the current meeting schedule.
We will enumerate a number of use cases here to ensure that our solution will at least accomplish these goals. However, we must be mindful that we may not know what applications will surface once the data is available.
Direction for Oversight Volunteers
Frequently, Citizens Oversight is asked, "What public bodies need oversight?" The best we can answer is to go to the registrar of voters and list the elected bodies in your area. For this purpose, we need:
- Desired and considered Required
- Name and location of the body.
- Generally what does.
- Where is the website for more information.
- Does their website/webpage provide full information. (Commissions, Task Forces, Subcommittees, etc may not provide full information.
- Is the full agenda posted for each meeting.
- Cops internal information
- If anyone is providing oversight and their contact information.
- Issues related to this body
- Archived emails received from the body.
- Additional information, in theory could be obtained from their website, if they have one.
- When and where it holds its meetings
- Email subscription information.
- Who is on the board, etc etc.
- Commissions, task forces, subcommittees -- each one of these would be treated as a separate body.
- Official oversight committees.
Surveys and Multi-agency evaluations
Frequently, we discover that a given public organization is not following the law properly, commonly just an oversight by the administration. In these cases, we can improve our effectiveness by communicating with all similar organizations. For example, there was a common idea in the area that it was okay for churches to use school buildings to hold worship services without any restriction. We learned that the schools can indeed provide these buildings for churches to use, but it must be on a temporary basis, with an opportunity for other organizations to use the same buildings. The project was to send a letter to all school districts in San Diego County, which is 70 districts. This could be extended to all 58 counties in California, which may be about 2000 contacts. COPS could send one letter to all school districts and confirm that they have contracts in place which are temporary for any use by churches. We can also discover how widespread the practice is.
Citizens Oversight can produce openness evaluations of bodies and compare them with other bodies. Those with poor scores will feel pressure to improve their openness. Such research projects can be provided to the media and the public should find this information useful.
- Website -- do they have one?
- Public Comment:
- When is it held?
- How long per person?
- Is subject matter restricted? (such as one speaker per subject)
- To they accept speakers to sign up until the item is completed on the agenda?
- Do they limit the overall time?
- Do they call for additional speakers at the end of the meeting?
- Do they video or audio record their meetings?
- Are video cameras allowed in their meetings?
- Do they accept comments from the internet?
Detailed oversight of specific agencies
For this we take the example of the CPUC, which has numerous administrative law proceedings, each of which they struggle to make as obtuse as possible. For this application, we need to track what the organization does. The infrastructure for oversight will likely be applicable to other agencies as well, such as the NRC, FDA, etc. but also perhaps even any random city dealing with a project like the El Cajon City Council and the ECPAC Theater. The major issue with the CPUC is they have dozens and dozens of active proceedings with obscure titles and they can change the scope from one to another.
- Category of Proceedings (for CPUC, Energy, Telecommunications, Transportation, etc.)
- Party List
- Docket Website
- Service List
- Email archive (not provided by CPUC, we would archive emails)
- Data Requests archived (not provided in the docket)
- Related Public Record Requests
Oversight of Police Departments
One of our target applications is oversight of Police Departments and any official (not independent) police oversight boards.
- Archival of complaints
- Review board treated like any other public body.
Previously Used Database
In about 2008, Citizens Oversight experimented with a database based on wiki forms. The structure of this data was based on three types of wiki pages:
- Body -- Description of a given governmental decision-making body, such as a city council, commission, fire board, hospital board, water board, etc.
- Seat -- Position within the body. A seat will refer to the body which it is a member.
- Person -- who may occupy one or more seats. The person is referred by the Seat.
What we found was that at the level of the body, these change relatively slowly, but are still difficult to maintain accurately. The seats and persons who occupy those seats changes very rapidly and all but impossible to maintain. However, if the responsibility for updating the data is the responsibility of each body, then we have some chance to keep it up to date, if they are cooperative.
A more recent revision to data relevant to a body is contained in this topic BodyForm
A proposal for the architecture of the Govt Info Map is based on the establishment of a standard XML data object to be maintained by the govt agency about the various bodies and proceedings under its jurisdiction. If this catches on, then the agencies are responsible for maintaining the data and there is a chance it will be more up to date. Anything they refuse to do can become a project for Citizen Oversight, and will then become a place where the best information is available about these bodies.
The RSS (Really Simple Syndication) standard developed by Aaron Swartz is an example of an XML descriptor that describes other documents and media on the website of interest.
XML is now a well supported public standard, and there are applications available to ease data entry given an XML Schema, the grammar that describes the data so that anyone can use it.
- XML -- defined by the www consortium (W 3 C) -- https://www.w3.org/TR/REC-xml/
- DTD -- "Document Type Definition" is the original schema definition, not an XML dialect.
- XSD -- XML Schema Definition -- supercedes DTD and is based on XML itself.
- Relax NG -- is a next generation schema definition which provides the ability to describe certain structure which are not possible using XSD or DTD and removes much of the complexity of data validation.
- Schematron or Examplotron -- generate an XML schema based on an example with some special syntax. These examples can be translated into a Relax NG definition and back. They are logically identical.
- XPath is a standard for expressing the label of a single or multiple data items in an XML tree.
- XQuery is a standard language for accessing data from XML collection using SQL-like queries and produce data which can span the tree at various levels.
- XSL - is a language to transform XML into other document types, such as HTML, PDF, etc.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XSL)
Elements of the project:
- Decide on an architecture. An obvious proposal is to use XML syntax and generate a schema based on Relax NG/Schematron.
- Create a desktop application that will allow any government entity to create and publish their GIM XML data object.
- A web-based application may be similarly somewhat easy to generate using the same paradigm
- Create a master directory that provides links to all GIM objects.
- Create infrastructure to provide facilities not provided by entities receiving oversight such as:
- email service list archives
- archival of data requests and responses.
- archival of other documents submitted via email but not included in the docket.
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