FCC to Call for Government Data Overhaul

The Federal Communications Commission outlined more details of the comprehensive broadband plan it plans to deliver to Congress later this month, laying out a series of recommendations for using Web-based technology to drive civic engagement with the government.

The commission will call on all branches of government to continue the early efforts underway in the executive branch to bring more data online, and urge government officials to accelerate the use of social media tools to engage the public, Eugene Huang, the director of government operations at the FCC’s broadband task force said on Monday.

“Civic engagement is the lifeblood of our democracy,” Huang said at an event hosted by M.I.T. “Broadband can enable citizens to engage in their democracy through a variety of broadband-enabled tools.”

For the past few weeks, the FCC has been previewing various components of the broadband plan, which it was directed to create by last year’s economic stimulus bill.

Huang praised the administration’s efforts in creating Data.gov, an online clearinghouse for federal data in machine-readable format, though he said that it was at best a good first step.

“This initiative demonstrates that while there is great demand for government to be a wholesaler of data, it is still not enough,” he said, noting that the site, created last May, still only contains a fragment of all federal data.

Huang said that the broadband plan will also call for the open data initiative to expand beyond the executive branch, appealing to Congress and the judiciary branch to make information freely available online.

Federal court documents, for instance, are currently available online through a fee-based system known as PACER (short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which charges eight cents per page. Huang said the broadband plan will recommend that those records be made available online at no charge.

The plan will also call on government bodies at all levels to provide live streams of their meetings over the Internet, and include closed-captioning and the ability for viewers to submit questions whenever possible.

“The public’s business should be done in public,” Huang said.

Social media embrace

The FCC will also call on federal IT administrators to take a more active role in deploying social media tools, which run the gamut from setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts to maintaining a blog and posting videos to government Web sites and YouTube.

Many of the recommendations Huang outlined echo the open government directive (available here as a PDF) the administration released in December, which called on the heads of executive agencies to brings more data online and develop new methods of engaging the public through their Web sites and other online channels.

Huang praised the efforts of certain government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, which launched a massive Internet campaign to disseminate information about the swine flu. But he said that those types of social media efforts remain an anomaly in government.

“Government is certainly making progress but these examples are the exception, rather than the rule,” Huang said. “Unfortunately government hasn’t integrated these tools across the board the same way the private sector has.”

In addition to the uptick in social media usage, the FCC will also recommend the government create what he described as an open platforms initiative, an online forum through which government agencies could tap the knowledge of experts in the private-sector.

The proposal is similar to what Obama aides have described as applying the open source model to government, tapping into the expertise of a broad community of interested parties when making policy decisions.

The plan will also call for reforms to the voting system. The FCC will recommend that all states establish a secure, online mechanism for voters to register. It will also recommend that the Defense Department create an online voting system for members of the military stationed overseas, whose write-in ballots are often lost, returned or delayed.

“No one should have to give up the right to vote as a condition of serving their country,” Huang said.

The FCC will also offer recommendations for strengthening public media institutions and positioning them to survive in the digital age, including an appeal to Congress to amend the Copyright Act to remove a provision that hinders the digital distribution of content.

The broadband plan will advocate the creation of a new digital archive dubbed Video.gov, which would include digital videos of government proceedings, such as congressional hearings or town hall meetings, as well as video content submitted by public and commercial media, such as copies of news broadcasts.

The FCC is due to present the comprehensive plan at its next monthly meeting, set for March 16.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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