Hi, please

White House Visitor Logs: Transparency or Bust?

Question: Does the releasing of the White House Visit Logs promote transparency as the Obama administration claims that it does? Are there instances when this information has furthered investigative journalism? Are there instances when it hasn’t, but it could have? Can this information be exploited? Is there any level of accountability in the whole process? Is it true that the vast majority of names on the list are simply tourists? Does it simply lead to more speculation about why these meetings take place?

Original Assumption: My original assumption is that the publishing of these lists is a good thing. While it may not go far enough in disclosing information, my general feeling is that this is a good first step towards providing information that journalists can use as a source in their reporting. The list is made available online and is searchable (which is a lot more than you can say for other various pieces of information that are available to the public), and does go into providing a certain amount of data. I do have to say I am somewhat skeptical to what extent these lists are censored. I find this frustrating because there is really no way to know what information is left out, it seems anything can be classified as “confidential.” It also clearly doesn’t solve the problem of knowing about what meetings take place not at the White House (is there any way to figure out percentage wise the number of meetings that may be). There also seem to be several problems with the lists such as duplicate names, as well as the fact that it’s released 90 days after. I don’t see any reason that they could not be released sooner, 90 days seem a bit extreme.

Related Norms: The whole issue of transparency and the Obama administration is discussed a lot. People often hail the website data.gov as a huge shift in how information is conveyed both internally and externally to the public. And of course others criticize it and say it doesn’t go far enough. (See this article for a discussion of the UK Open Data site and why it is superior to data.gov). But it begs the question as to why we as a culture are seeing an increase shift in demanding transparency – whether its in disclosing earmarks in legislation, campaign contributions, information on how laws are being made, or just generally about where information comes from. It definitely seems as though the release of the White House Visitor Logs are along the same vein of transparency movement by the President. But it begs the question, should these lists even be released to begin with? If it proves that they aren’t providing valuable data, what is the point?

A few other points to consider…

Having played around with visitor logs over the past few days, there are several important characteristics that I noted:

  • It’s user friendly, specifically it’s easy to navigate, rarely crashes, and allows users to search for as specific or as general information as you want
  • You can download the data into various formats (Excel), this allows for the data to be used in mashups and other various forms by innovative and motivated users
  • It allows you to link lists and results searched for automatically to Twitter, Google, Reddit, Delicious, MySpace, Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.

In my next post, I will look closely at several instances related to all my above questions and assumptions:

  • How has the mainstream media covered this issue? Do they take a specific angle? Is it celebratory or more critical?
  • Are there examples of where this data has been useful in journalism and news stories.
  • Are there instances where the data may not have been used, but could have been?

I will also do a bit more digging as well trying to answer the following questions:

  1. How many names appear on this list? How many do not appear? (eg how many actual visitors vs. reported visitors)
  2. What kinds of visitors besides tourists appear on these lists?

Any advice or thoughts would be appreciated! Thanks!

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  1. mushon 14:33, Feb 27th, 10

    This is interesting. I wonder what’s the reasoning behind the 90 days buffer. To me this makes the actinability of this information close to 0. There is no technical reason for the logs to not be published as soon as they are being created. (Got privacy concerns, don’t walk into the White House)

    Beyond that you mentioned similar approaches in other places in the world. How do they handle this specific issue? Anything to learn there?

    Without sounding like a cynic I do think it is smart to read the map and understand that if the government doesn’t take initiative there, it loses its opportunity to shape government transparency to its own liking. If you find out that this data is indeed not actionable, then how sincere are these transparency attempts anyway?

  2. Leslie 22:10, Feb 28th, 10

    Maybe the government is concerned with potential terrorist threats, and that’s why they choose to withhold the info for so long?

    I also agree with Mushon, though, I also wonder how sincere the government’s choosing to release this information is? I wonder if they just did this for the purpose of creating an ‘aura’ of transparency, vs actually wanting to physically make a more open government?

  3. Ryan 14:29, Mar 1st, 10

    Did you check this statement out by Obama?


    “For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis,” said President Obama. “We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans,>>>

    BUT by shining a light on the business conducted inside. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.” >>> BINGO!

    “Aside from a small group of appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature (such as a visit by a possible Supreme Court nominee), the record of every visitor who comes to the White House for an appointment, a tour, or to conduct business will be released.”

    They can’t be totally transparent because of “reasons” of national security. Still, why do you think they release CIA reports years later. The public has a right to know, but at the same time, certain matters of the federal government must be concealed for reasons of security and privacy. A prime example of something that was very controversial was during the Vietnam War where certain classified material was released by the NYTimes, leaked by an insider source, and published in the papers, which caused more public dismay at the administration for what was going on during vietnam. This topic was called the “Pentagon Papers”.

    About your White House Log, I think, like Mushon & Leslie, already mentioned that in some sense it is a matter of just creating this buzzword of transparency to the public. But quite frankly, I wonder how much of an effect this release of information is having? Who’s paying attention to these logs? Who’s using these logs? This you mention, “Are there examples of where this data has been useful in journalism and news stories.”. I would be more interested in how this data can be useful either to the general public or to whoever wants to use it.

  4. Ryan 14:30, Mar 1st, 10
  5. DanJee 14:53, Mar 2nd, 10

    I am looking forward to your next post on this about the angle mass media is taking on this and how this has been received by the public (if there was any response at all) given the poor approval rate on Obama.

    I personally feel pretty negative about this. This list doesn’t seem useful or even transparent as they claim. In fact, I think it can make who visits White House more non-transparent by altering the list and misleading the readers from gaining 100% view. I cannot imagine that the government would not alter the list if needed. For example, if they know that a known terrorist suspect entered the White House would they actually reveal the list to the public risking the massive publicity damage?