Government data: Visibility is not usability
Update, 21 December 2010: The CSB has fixed the linking issue which I described in this post--that is excellent, and I hope they will keep working to improve the site. Original post: Putting data online is the hot new trend in transparency for governments, and the Georgian government is no exception. The Parliament recently unveiled a website where citizens can view the voting records of MPs, and starting this year, the income declarations of every government official can be viewed on the snazzy new Declarations website (I’ll provide you with a link soon--don’t run off and Google it, I’ll explain why in a moment). This is a very positive trend, and one that we at TI Georgia fully support. However, the simple availability of documents online does not necessarily mean that “transparency” has been achieved – data must not only be visible, it must be usable. Unfortunately, the declarations website (link soon, I promise), for all its shiny exterior, presents data in a way that makes it difficult for the data to be used, and which highlights the difference between visibility and usability. The main problem is that the website makes it impossible to link directly to a particular report. Here’s a direct link to an official’s declaration (Magdalina Anikashvili, but the exact official isn’t important) - go ahead and try to view it, I’ll wait. http://declaration.ge/csb/report/report.seam?id=192 . All finished? What you probably saw when you clicked that link was a blank page. That’s because the declaration.ge website doesn’t allow you to view income declarations unless you’ve already viewed the declaration.ge search page. Give it a try – go to declaration.ge, click the bottom button, and then search with all the fields blank (if you don’t read Georgian, just click one of the text fields and hit Enter). The first result will be Anikashvili’s declaration, and if you navigate to it this way, you should be able to view it without any trouble. But if you read something interesting in that report, your options for sharing it are limited – you can’t email the link to your friends or post in on your blog or on Facebook or on Twitter, because when they try to click it, they’ll get a blank screen. So you’re stuck either providing your friends with extended instructions on how to view the original report (how many of you actually bothered to follow the instructions in the previous paragraph?), or downloading the PDF and sending it to them manually. Not optimal. This same quirk of the website also means that you can’t search the full text of the income declarations using Google. Let’s do another experiment. Google has a little-used, but very useful, ability to search by file type. So first, let’s search declaration.ge for PDF files. Zero results. Even though there are over 1,500 income declaration PDFs on declaration.ge. Just in case you doubt Google’s ability to search PDFs, search the Georgian Parliament for PDF files instead. In other words, the income declarations on declaration.ge are completely invisible to Google. Search for Anikashvili or anyone else on Google, and an income declaration on declaration.ge is the last thing you’ll find. Sure, you can find the files by going to declaration.ge , but some people may not know about the website, and it doesn’t allow you to perform a full-text search, the way Google would if it knew these PDFs existed. That lack of full-text search is a problem in itself; for instance, if you wanted to look for potential conflicts of interest among agency officials by checking to see if they received gifts from companies they are supposed to regulate, you would have to download every declaration on the website and search through them yourself. But wait – there’s no way to download every file on the website! In order to check for conflicts of interest, you’d have to download all 1,500+ income declarations by hand. Yuck. The Web, and technology in general, are not panaceas, they are tools, and like any tool, they can be used correctly or incorrectly. Simply placing government data online doesn’t automatically guarantee transparency no matter how cool your website looks. In order for government data to be transparent, it must be usable, not just visible. Full text search, bulk downloads, direct links, and accessibility to search engines should be mandatory requirements for all government data posted online.