Pew asked Americans what they think about open data

TL;DR: Pew’s numbers are probably way off, they’re presented in a completely misleading context, and I don’t know why anyone would want to survey the American public for familiarity with technical jargon.

Yesterday Pew published a survey of how Americans feel about open government data. Don’t believe their lies. (This is a Memento reference…)

Pew says “relatively few” when they mean “OMG actually a lot!”

Pew’s report on their survey suffered from the same flaw usually lobbied at open data itself — lack of context. Their numbers are grossly (and negligently) misleading without context. So if anyone thinks Pew is in some high up position to come and judge open data, I’d rethink that. For instance, Pew said

Relatively few Americans reported using government data sources . . . 20% have used government sources to find information about student or teacher performance.

They think 20% is a little. But only about half of adult-aged Americans (to match their sample) are students or parents of students. So of people that actually might care about student/teacher performance, about half used government data. To me that’s huge! If Pew is going to slip in a judgment about whether this is a lot or a little, they ought to substantiate it and not pass it off as if it were a finding.

Pew asked questions we know Americans don’t know the answer to

Pew asked their panelists how often they made use of government data. We know Americans don’t always know when the services they are using are government services, so there’s no reason to think Pew’s panelists had any idea how often they made use of government data.

I think there were a few surveys about this a few years ago, but in one covered here, almost half of those who took Pell grants, unemployment insurance, and other forms of government assistance believed they had not ever used a government social program.

Why should Americans know our jargon?

The survey is like asking Americans how they think TCP/IP will affect government services. (What do you think the results of that survey would be?) TCP/IP is the protocol that underlies the whole Internet — it’s super important. But there’s no reason to think the American public would be, or should be, familiar with our technical jargon.

TCP/IP, like government data, is technical jargon that refers to a means, and not an end. The open data community has the unfortunate habit of talking about open data as if it were an end in itself. It’s not. It’s in the service of other goals (better government service delivery, for instance).  Do Americans like free weather reports? Then they probably like government data even if they don’t know that that’s what we call it.

The survey tells us about American’s familiarity with our technical jargon. If I’m doing my job right in informing and empowering Americans, then they won’t know my technical jargon and just get to be informed and empowered. And, so, Pew’s survey doesn’t tell us anything about whether Americans use government data or what they think about its importance.

#Hack4Congress: An event where citizens can make Congress better

Self-governance is hard — and it is getting harder. When Congress first convened in 1789, the nation entrusted its lawmaking powers to just 79 people. Today Americans elect 541 federal lawmakers who then hire tens of thousands of staff members to help them write law and connect with constituents, lobbyists, and campaign supporters. The laws they write are hundreds or thousands of pages of unintelligible instructions to the nation’s codifiers and check-writers.

It is a hot mess. But it’s our mess.

My goal with is to enable Americans, including congressional staff, to more effectively carry-out our self-government responsibilities. As Mark Schmitt recently asked,  “how do we reform American politics so that [our] pluralistic vision . . . might actually describe reality?”

On April 30-May 1, join me, The OpenGov Foundation, Harvard’s Ash Center, and other colleagues for #Hack4Congress in DC where we’ll try to make our mess of self-governance just a little bit tidier. — Register Here

We’re going to problem-solve how we can make self-governance better. That includes both issues we face as citizens keeping Congress accountable as well as issues faced by congressional staff as they do their best to represent their constituents.

Who should come? Anyone with a passion for Congress is welcome. If you like to imagine and design products, research wonky but very real problems, translate techno-speak, or develop software, you will be welcome. You can be a hobbyist or a professional.

The event culminates with a presentation session before a panel of judges (I’ll be one) who are practitioners, scholars and others active in the civic tech and data space. Finalists will present their solutions to high-level congressional representatives this spring.

This is the third event in the #Hack4Congress series — the previous were in Boston and San Francisco.