Federal City Digest

Federal City Digest

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Transparency and the Web

Already, the struggle to digitally upgrade federal agencies seems certain to be one of the central challenges of the new administration as it seeks to create a more transparent government.

Just ask public domain advocate Carl Malamud. "I've been putting government online for ages," says the 49-year-old from Sebastopol, Calif.

Malamud first put difficult-to-access Security and Exchange Commissions records online in early 1994, ultimately leading the SEC to open up its EDGAR database by making the information available online.

Now Malamud is pushing to make "America's operating system," as he calls federal court records, no more than a Google search away.

Launched in early 2007, his nonprofit group, PublicResource.org, has found that effort somewhat controversial, with pushback from privacy advocates and the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system that has until now had a monopoly on online access to the files, which are stored in a pay-per-page database.

Thanks to a 2005-2006 stint as the chief technology officer for Obama transition chief John D. Podesta's Center for American Progress, though, he's finding the new administration a welcome potential ally in his quest to "liberate the bulk databases." The Obama transition team invited him to submit papers on how to revamp the Federal Register and other topics. "It's very different than the Bush administration," he says. "People are talking to me."

And not all his projects are an uphill battle. His FedFlix repository of government film clips in the public domain -- such as a 1951 "duck and cover" public service announcement on how to survive a nuclear attack -- has succeeded in its effort to provide free archival footage as both YouTube and downloadable video files.

Oh -- Canada!

The lobbying in advance of President Obama's trip to Ottawa on Thursday to meet with Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper is already in high gear, as Canadian environmental and community groups hold a telephone briefing today to discuss "the major cross-border climate and energy issues."

The push comes on the heels of ad in Roll Call last Tuesday from the alliance of 20 Canadian and American groups rallying under the umbrella of Obama2Canada.org that is seeking to make the local and global environmental impacts of oil extraction from the Alberta tar sands into a major issue in the bilateral discussions.

Canada supplies more oil to the United States than any other nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and much of that oil comes from the tar sands through a process that makes it the "dirtiest oil on earth," the group charges. Expect Obama2Canada.org's campaign to intensify over the course of the week; the effort is already getting a fair bit of attention in the Canadian press.

WHAT TO WATCH

· Also of interest on the U.S.-Canada front, the Wilson Center today hosts a forum to discuss issues of bilateral concern, featuring Paul Frazer of mCapitol Management; Jodi White, former president of the Public Policy Forum of Ottawa; and David Biette, director of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute.

· Evoking memories of the August Democratic National Convention in Denver, Obama returns to the Mile High City today, where he will sign the $787 billion economic stimulus bill into law, before moving on to Phoenix for the evening in advance of a Wednesday speech there laying out his plans to address the foreclosure crisis. [Story, A2.]

· Congress and the Supreme Court are not in session.

-- Garance Franke-Ruta federalcity@washpost.com


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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