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On January 29th, 2010, the White House released – for the first time in history – its visitor records for the previous 90 days. In included more than 75,000 White House Visitors (the 75,000 represented six months worth of visitors) – now the information is released on a monthly basis. It was part of Obama’s commitment to transparency (however, that definition itself is rather unclear).

The full policy of disclosure described on the White House’s blog site here.

At the surface, it appears there are several positive and negatives of such a policy.

Positives:

  • It is unprecedented for a White House to do this and they should be commended
  • The decision to do this was voluntary
  • It’s available online rather than in some dusty basement in Washington D.C. (which goes a long way in making information “public” in the 21st century). You can also download the information which allows for research potential.
  • Not only is it available online, it’s easily searchable and has quite a bit of detailed information such as visitor’s first and last name, meeting room, who they met with and occasionally a description of purpose of the visit.

Negatives:

  • It’s done 90-120 days after the fact. Is there a good explanation for this? Why can’t they do it daily/weekly?
  • The White House still controls the flow of information and acts as a gatekeeper (eg they can remove names for “security concerns” or any other purposes they want).
  • The “description” (eg purpose of the meeting) is often left out, when that’s probably the most important information!
  • Where is the accountability in this process? Is there any? Will it just encourage meetings outside the White House?
  • Who manages this list?
  • What about duplicate names (the White House admitted this themselves that this has been a problem)? Is it searchable according to the member of the White House who called the meeting? If not, why not?

Over the next few weeks of this travalogue I will continue exploring this issue, including delving deeper into the visitor’s lists themselves, and finding out what kind of information can be gleaned from this list. What kind of research can be done around the people who has access to these lists? Can this information be used successfully in mashups for example, to determine for example what visitors made campaign contributions, etc.

I will also examine instances in which the visitor’s list were useful for journalists, bloggers etc, as well as look at cases when they weren’t not used but could have been (and perhaps do some of that research myself if possible). I will also look further into the limitations of this kind of information.

I tried to get a good visualization of what this visitor log looks like, but was having trouble with getting a coherent screen shot that illustrates the user functionality of it. If you’re interested, you can go here to view all the visitors named “Elizabeth” who have been to the White House.

Thanks to everyone who helped me formulate this idea. I really appreciate it!

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3 Comments

  1. nadine 23:49, Feb 21st, 10

    I am looking forward to your travelogue!!! I agree that it is important to create more transparency in the lobbying industry; disclosing the names of visitors is a great (indeed revolutionary) first step. However, this doesn’t lead automatically to bigger accountability or better governance. The processes of decision taking aren’t revealed or clarified.
    Certain questions arise also about this so-called transparency: do you remember the White House party-crasher scandal in November? Why weren’t they on the list? (I don’t think that revealing their visit would have posed a problem for national security)
    Here are some organizations that could give you interesting leads: American Civil Liberties Union, Project on Government Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or OBM Watch.
    If you’d like to expand the subject, you could also look into the http://www.data.gov/ initiative

    You might be interested in a conference at SIPA/Columbia University that takes place this Saturday, February 27:
    http://themorningsidepost.com/policy-making-digital-age/schedule/
    On the agenda:
    11:30 : Panel: Open Governance
    The Honorable Gale A. Brewer
    Tom Glaisyer
    Kimberly Harrington
    Moderator: Tanya L. Domi
    Digital technology enables a new era where barriers between political leaders and citizens are breaking down even further. But does simply putting data online or broadcasting presidential speeches over YouTube improve and engage citizen participation? This panel will discuss the implications for an “open society” and how open governance efforts vary across different communities.

  2. Leslie 13:55, Feb 22nd, 10

    Very cool that they are providing this information- definitely a step in the right direction. But at the same time, there seem to be so many checkpoints surrounding the info, allowing the White House to essentially withhold whatever they want. So, not to be too cynical, but I wonder if this is more of just a publicity stunt for the purpose of hopefully turning around negative sentiment towards Obama, vs being done for the purpose of having a more open government? I understand security issues is definitely a huge concern when allowing this type of information to go public, though. And, I’m sure that most of those security measure are necessary. It would be interesting to see what politicians and American citizens in general think of this decision.

  3. DanJee 15:46, Feb 23rd, 10

    I am guessing that this is any visitors, as in like tourists. In such case, why should they be commended or releasing this record. People seem so obsessed about others knowing what they do. Would they care about everybody in the world knowing that they visited the White House last week? I personally think Obama is completely lost. He has better things to do than worry about releasing visitors list that nobody cares about. Visitors is a government property since the White House is a government property and they can keep it to themselves if they want to.