Friday, June 13, 2014

President Obama signs bill to turn all federal expenditures into open data. Implementation will be phased into a year-by-year approach.


President Barack Obama

On May 9, President Barack Obama signed into law the first federal open data bill that requires all federal agencies to publish expenditures publicly online and in a standardized machine-readable format.

 On May 9, President Barack Obama signed into law the first federal open data bill that requires all federal agencies to publish expenditures publicly online and in a standardized machine-readable format.

His signature represents a historic milestone for the open data movement and is a feat that’s required years of advocacy from bipartisan proponents. Titled the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the bill is the most aggressive open data legislation ever enacted. Its wide scope and narrow guidelines will compel agencies to report spending to, a federal open data portal, so expenditures can be compared across jurisdictions — a service previously unheard of digitally or otherwise at the federal level.

Implementation will be phased into a year-by-year approach. In the first year, the White House Office of Management and Budget will draft expenditure reporting guidelines while organizing a pilot program for testing. Three years from the bill’s passage, all agencies must comply with the new open data standards.

Advocates of the DATA Act, including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — who introduced the initial version of the DATA Act in June 2011 — celebrated when the White House confirmed the president would sign the bill at the end of April.

Hudson Hollister, the executive director at the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC), was overjoyed with the passage, as it was one of his coalition’s primary objectives since the coalition was founded in 2012.
“The DATA Act is the first open data act the country has ever seen — which is awesome,” Hollister said. “It requires the government to transform its spending from disconnected documents into open data.”
For transparency advocates, Hollister said he saw the president’s signature as the most significant action taken since the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 — a law ensuring public access to all government non-classified information.

“For the open data industry, which our coalition represents, and for supporters of government transparency, President Obama’s signature is going to be his enduring legacy,” Hollister said.
However, he noted that the bill's passage has not been equally endorsed by all of the White House administration’s staff. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), tasked to oversee much of the bill’s implementation, has been hesitant to embrace the bill since it was first proposed, Hollister said. While the OMB sees value in the act, reluctance formed when considering tasks related to implementation.

Hollister said he observed that the OMB’s reluctance stems from fears the act will be either too complicated to execute or be too labor intensive. Both concerns he empathized with, but dismissed them as unwarranted in light of the gains that can be achieved and the fact that processes will remain fairly unchanged.
“The DATA Act to many exterior observers might look like [it's too complicated to institute]," Hollister said. "But I think it’s not that. It doesn’t require new reporting requirements. Instead, it just requires some kind of electronic structure for the reporting requirements that already exist."

As the DATA Act goes forward, here are three takeaways about what the bill means for transparency, as well as an interactive timeline of the act's introduction through signing and beyond.

1. The DATA Act Requires Understandable, Comparable Budgets

Assuming all goes to plan, the most apparent benefit of the DATA Act will be its requirement to funnel federal government spending reports into a single repository,, and within a single reporting standard. Before, no entity in the government had the authority to impose government-wide data standards. Now, the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget have been tasked to do this at the national level. For agencies, this may include quite a bit of work to start, but will allow them to communicate financial data in an easy and interoperable way.

2. The DATA Act Cuts Waste, Fraud and Abuse

Tracking can be difficult when thousands of pieces of financial data are moving in many different ways and formats. Proponents argue that this complexity can lead to confusion, and confusion can breed fraudulent or wasteful spending. With the DATA Act’s common data format, automation and analytics can be used to quickly audit for accuracy, waste, fraud and abuse.

3. The DATA Act Gives Public Access and Accountability

The DATA Act will clarify government spending with sharper details on the following: congressional appropriations; to Treasury accounts, where appropriations are held; and for actual expenditures the money pays for. This information was previously obscured in summarized texts or could be reached only by special request.

Samsung Simband aims to take a big step in wearable health

James Martin/CNET
Today, there's the Samsung Gear Fit. But it seems that if you listened to Samsung president Young Sohn, that's merely a temporary patch for what the future of wearable health tech will really bring.
Samsung's health event, called "Voice of the Body," happened today. And at it, Sohn, discussed a three phase evolution of health tech, starting with phones, then moving to wearable devices, and finally ending up at wearable sensors. We're currently in the middle phase.

The next step, unveiled by VP Ram Fish, is Simband, another health band, but not a smartwatch: its focus is entirely on health tracking, collecting lots of data to share with medical researchers, doctors, and for personal health use. Simband is designed to be open and modular, and comes studded with a ton of medical sensors.
The Simband is designed to work with a variety of medical needs and with many sensor technologies, and to eventually work with SAMI, Samsung's cloud-based solution for collecting and analyzing sensor-based health data.
James Martin/CNET
Unlike something comparatively primitive like the current Samsung Gear 2 and Gear Fit heart-rate watches, the Simband has multiple sensors. It uses optical, electrical, and physical methods of collecting heart rate, blood flow, temperature, CO2 and oxygen levels, and even simulated blood pressure, all to display real-time electrocardiograph information of it all. Even the optical sensors on the Simband seem improved, with multiple wavelength LEDs at once. Samsung admits its measurement technology needs to be more accurate. We at CNET agree.

The design looks a bit like most recent Gear watches. There are differences: the battery's hot-swappable for easy night charging while wearing to enable 24/7 tracking. Inside, an ARM-based processor handles processing of the various sensors. The Simband has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it can share data to local devices or directly to Samsung's cloud.

The goal of Simband is to offer open APIs for medical use, and to test the Simband at hospitals and medical institutions. The University of California, San Francisco is already working with Samsung and the Simband. Right now, Simband is a concept device, a reference for future wearable health sensor-laden tech, but it could be a leaping-off point for future Samsung wearables, too.
James Martin/CNET
So who is Simband for? You, the consumer, don't need to worry yet. The Simband seems squarely focused on Big Health and medical institutions for now, as new ways are discovered to make the best use of different arrays of sensors. The idea seems to be to use it to help prevent disease and deliver better health profiles: one app, called TicTrac and demonstrated on-stage at Samsung's event, used the Simband's multiple sensors to quickly gather a health rating.

Maybe the Simband could help predict illnesses before they strike, or get people to fix their bad habits early. That could be great for anyone. Of course, preventative medical tech could save hospitals and health insurance companies a ton of money, too.

The bigger question is how these sensors will evolve, how Samsung's cloud will use the data, and how other researchers and companies will be able to develop tools for Simband. The medical industry is a large beast, and Samsung's desire to create a new open platform is an ambitious one, to say the least. And, odds are Samsung won't be the only company to try to lay claim to an open health platform.

Simband looks a first step toward acknowledging how big a hill wearable health tech still has left to climb.

The FCC’s proposed rules could destroy net neutrality and equal access to the Internet.

If you want a glimpse into what the speed of your Internet connection might look like under the newly proposed Open Internet rules, take yourself back to the last uncomfortable hour of a long plane flight. You know the feeling. You’re back in economy class wondering if seats have actually gotten smaller these past few years (they probably have), and amazed when you glance up front and see how appealing business class has become. That’s what the Internet could look like soon.

With all the talk about fast lanes and paid prioritization recently, the Federal Communication Commission’s proposed rules could lead us down a path where regular and premium service levels make Internet service look a lot more like air travel. Some advocates are worried that a section of the rules allowing carriers to negotiate individually with content providers for service as long as it is “commercially reasonable” could allow ISPs to charge different websites for faster or higher-quality content delivery. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that this won’t lead to fast lanes and slow lanes online, but it’s hard to see how the current proposal would adequately protect against this type of behavior. So as the debate over the potential impact of these rules continues for the next few months, it’s helpful to consider how premium service can inherently lead to degraded service for everyone else.

Just take a look at the airline industry: Tiered service has been common in air travel for years, with airlines offering special amenities and improved service for those who can afford to pay more, while everyone else gets crammed into regular seats. Although almost everyone would prefer to travel more comfortably and wait in faster security and boarding lines, it’s often challenging for airlines to convince people to pay the premium for first class: It can cost up to ten times more to fly business instead of economy on a trans-Atlantic flight, and both seats get you to the same destination. So while airlines try to make first class more appealing with new amenities and personalized attention, they simultaneously have an incentive against improving the quality of “regular” service as a way to protect their higher-end business.

And as airlines have struggled financially in recent years, it appears they may even be actively degrading economy class options. According to an October 2013 Wall Street Journal article, in a reversal of a half century trend of gradually improved seating, airlines have spent the last decade trimming first legroom and now seat width in order to squeeze more seats into economy class. This allows them to expand higher-fare sections—particularly new mid-range options like economy plus which offer added legroom for a fee—without reducing the number of ticketed passengers on the plane.

What’s more, this tactic has the added benefit of increasing the appeal of premium options while still maintaining the premium price. As the article notes, “[p]ressure in economy cabins also lets airlines upsell coach passengers.” This nuance is critical because it illustrates the incentives for airlines not only to make more seats available by reducing their size, but to increase the disparity between economy and premium seats to make the premium seats even more attractive to flyers.

Now, do you see what would happen if we enter a world of “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the Internet? Some argue that it’s not a big deal for a big company to pay for a “fast lane,” but the precedent would open the floodgates for many new types of discrimination online. And it will make the remaining Internet capacity on the network worse for those who cannot pay the fee.

Under the proposed FCC rules, Internet service providers would have to carry all traffic at some minimum service level (we’ll call that economy class). So to sell seats in the fast lane (first class), it must be sufficiently attractive to content companies so that they would actually be willing to pay more. This means faster speeds and better quality of service, but it also requires making sure that the regular lanes don’t improve at a pace that would threaten the premium business.

In other words, there is a risk that ISPs, in an effort to either make the fast lane more appealing, will be encouraged to unnecessarily limit capacity for everyone except those in the fast lane. Or they might squeeze additional customers into the regular lane to make more room for premium customers – effectively degrading regular service during peak congestion times. And, the more attractive the fast lane becomes, the more an ISP can charge for carriage in that lane.

There’s an important distinction in this analogy as well. For airlines, degrading service requires physically shrinking the size of seats. On the Internet, since bandwidth consumption is growing steadily, an ISP simply could choose not to improve the capacity of the network and the quality of your Internet experience would still gradually decline.

Which brings us back to the Commission’s proposed rules that were released for public comment earlier this month.

The new rules are based on a presumption that business arrangements for prioritization of certain types of content would be valid, though, as we’ve noted, there are mixed messages coming from the FCC about whether fast lanes would actually be permitted. Unfortunately, the legal theory on which the agency is relying to implement these rules necessitates discrimination, which is why the rules must permit some degree of individualized negotiation and bargaining.

Changing the rules themselves would require a different source of authority – what advocates refer to as authority under “Title II” of the Telecommunications Act. Some also argue that either way, the rules adequately protect against slow lanes because of the “minimum level of service” requirement – a term of art that will be defined precisely during the comment period on the proposed rules. Leaving aside the challenge of actually determining what a minimum level of service might look like, if the framework is based on a presumption in favor of paid prioritization, it’s difficult to envision how it can actually protect against an Internet full of bandwidth haves and have-nots.

Whether we’re on track for fast lanes and slow lanes or merely fast lanes and adequate lanes, Internet users should be concerned about what’s in the proposal and should question whether they want a divided Internet. This kind of Internet is not the type envisioned by advocates of network neutrality, which is based on the fundamental principle of nondiscrimination and has been integral to creating the space for innovation, public debate, and free expression online that Americans enjoy today.