OpenGov Voices: Making political information truly accessible with Countable

Countable CEO Bart Myers

Despite having a long way to go, those of us dedicated to opengov do need to take a moment to realize just how far we have come; Daniel Schuman’s recent blog post is a perfect example of this progress. A mix of technology and increased public pressure has brought about a number of developments that, as little as one decade ago, often seemed like a pipe dream.

One area that is continually growing is making information not just accessible, but intellectually accessible, as well. Opening up information often helps inform reporters and those whose job it is to understand that information. But, for the most part, the information released by the government isn’t easily understood by those people who aren’t trained to translate that information. If that information doesn’t get “translated,” then, it won’t get consumed by the general public. It’s a big gap.

One quick example is the promise by the Senate to put out bill information in bulk XML. It’s a huge step for those of us involved in open government. But releasing bulk XML, in and of itself, means nothing to the average American; the information released is still, largely, confusing. Take this summary of HR 624, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act — a complex bill, to be sure. But the CRS Summary is a 10 paragraph, densely worded description that I can’t paste into a blog post without busting through my word-count cap. It’s filled with descriptions of procedures that would make little sense to most Americans.

So, if opengov ended there, sure, it is more “open,” but isn’t very intellectually accessible for most Americans. Very often, official bill descriptions raise more confusion than clarification.

That’s the area that Countable is most focused. Every day we’re hiring more writers and editors to pore over all of this legislative information, to crunch it all down to something that’s easy for any person to understand. Our summaries let anyone know what a bill would do, what the cost is, where it stands as well as pro and con arguments being used in the debate — all on one page. In this way, we’re helping make a more open government become more easily accessible to everyone.

Going back to the previously mentioned bill: Our writers and editors took the available summary and “translated” it to something simpler. We took it from 10 paragraphs and made it just three:

H.R. 624 would allow — in the event of a cyber attack — technology/manufacturing companies and the federal government to share and exchange Internet traffic information. This exchange of information would be voluntary, as the bill does not require or compel companies to give it up.

For example, if the government detects a cyber attack that might take down a site like Google or Twitter, they could let those companies know. On the other hand, those companies could inform the government if they spot any activity that might suggest a cyber attack on their networks.

The stated aim of this bill is to help the U.S. investigate cyber threats and protect networks against cyber attacks.

What we’re doing wouldn’t be possible without the herculean efforts of opengov activists and technologists. All of the achievements that Schuman cited in his blog post are quite literally the foundation on which apps like Countable are built.

Someday, I’m sure the information apps like Countable puts out will serve as a foundation for someone else’s app or resource. That I can’t even imagine what that might be is what makes opengov so exciting. All of this is spreading and growing organically, in truly unpredictable but overwhelmingly positive ways.

So, yes, we have a lot more to do. But let’s not lose sight of how much we’ve already done.

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