February 20, 2018

The Decline of Localist Broadcasting Policies

Public policy, in the U.S. at least, has favored localism in broadcasting: programming on TV and radio stations is supposed to be aimed, at least in part, at the local community. Two recent events call this policy into question.

The first event is the debut of the Pandora application on the iPhone. Pandora is a personalized “music radio” service delivered over the Internet. You tell it which artists and songs you like, and it plays you the requested songs, plus other songs it thinks are similar. You can rate the songs it plays, thereby giving it more information about what you like. It’s not a jukebox – you can’t find out in advance what it’s going to play, and there are limits on how often it can play songs from the same artist or album – but it’s more personalized than broadcast radio. (Last.fm offers a similar service, also available now on the iPhone.)

Now you can get Pandora on your iPhone, so you can listen to Pandora on a battery-powered portable device that fits in your pocket – like a twenty-first century version of the old transistor radios, only this one plays a station designed especially for you. Why listen to music on broadcast radio when you can listen to this? Or to put it another way: why listen to music targeted at people who live near you, when you can listen to music targeted at people with tastes like yours?

The second event I’ll point to is a statement from a group of Christian broadcasters, opposing a proposed FCC rule that would require radio stations to have local advisory boards that tell them how to tailor programming to the local community. [hat tip: Ars Technica] The Christian stations say, essentially, that their community is defined by a common interest rather than by geography.

Many people are like the Pandora or Christian radio listeners, in wanting to hear content aimed at their interests rather than just their location. Public policy ought to recognize this and give broadcasters more latitude to find their own communities rather than defining communities only by geography.

Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be local programming, or that people shouldn’t care what is happening in their neighborhoods. Most people care a lot about local issues and want some local programming. The local community is one of their communities of interest, but it’s not the only one. Let some stations serve local communities while others serve non-local communities. As long as there is demand for local programming – as there surely will be – the market will provide it, and new technologies will help people get it.

Indeed, one of the benefits of new technologies is that they let people stay in touch with far-away localities. When we were living in Palo Alto during my sabbatical, we wanted to stay in touch with events in the town of Princeton because we were planning to move back after a year. Thanks to the Web, we could stay in touch with both Palo Alto and Princeton. The one exception was that we couldn’t get New Jersey TV stations. We had satellite TV, so the nearby New York and Philadelphia stations were literally being transmitted to our Palo Alto house; but the satellite TV company said the FCC wouldn’t let us have the station because localist policy wanted us to watch San Francisco stations instead. Localist policy, perversely, pushed us away from local programming and kept us out of touch.

New technologies undermine the rationale for localist policies. It’s easier to get far-away content now – indeed the whole notion that content is bound to a place is fading away. With access to more content sources, there are more possible venues for local programming, making it less likely that local programming will be unavailable because of the whims or blind spots of a few station owners. It’s getting easier and cheaper to gather and distribute information, so more people have the means to produce local programming. In short, we’re looking at a future with more non-local programming and more local programming.

New bill advances open data, but could be better for reuse

Senators Obama, Coburn, McCain, and Carper have introduced the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008 (S. 3077), which would modify their 2006 transparency act. That first bill created USASpending.gov, a searchable web site of government outlays. USASpending.gov—which was based on software developed by OMB Watch and the Sunlight Foundation—allows end users to search across a variety of criteria. It has begun offering an API, an interface that lets developers query the data and display the results on their own sites. This allows a kind of reuse, but differs significantly from the approach suggested in our recent “Invisible Hand” paper. We urge that all the data be published in open formats. An API delivers search results, but that makes the search interface itself very important: having to work through an interface sometimes limits developers from making innovative, unforeseen uses of the data.

The new bill would expand the scope of information available via USASpending.gov, adding information about federal contracts, leases, and audit disputes, among other areas. But it would also elevate the API itself to a matter of statutory mandate. I’m all in favor of mandates that make data available and reusable, but the wording here is already a prime example of why technical standards are often better left to expert regulatory bodies than etched in statute:

” (E) programmatically search and access all data in a serialized machine readable format (such as XML) via a web-services application programming interface”

A technical expert body would (I hope) recognize that there is added value in allowing the data itself to be published so that all of it can be accessed at once. This is significantly different from the site’s current attitude; addressing the list of top contractors by dollar volume, the site’s FAQ says it “does not allow the results of these tables to be downloaded in delimited or XML format because they are not standard search results.” I would argue that standardizers of search results, whomever they may be, should not be able to disallow any data from being downloaded. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a downloadable table of top contractors, but it should be possible for citizens to download all the data so that they can compose such a table themselves if they so desire. The API approach, if it substitutes for making all the data available for download, takes us away from the most vibrant possible ecosystem of data reuse, since whenever government web sites design an interface (whether it’s a regular web interface for end users, or a code-level interface for web developers), they import assumptions about how the data will be used.

All that said, it’s easy to make the data available for download, and a straightforward additional requirement that could be added to the bill. And in any cause we owe a debt of gratitude to Senators Coburn, Obama, McCain and Carper for their pioneering, successful efforts in this area.

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Update, June 12: Amended the list of cosponsors to include Sens. Carper and (notably) McCain. With both major presidential candidates as cosponsors, the bill seems to reflect a political consensus. The original bill back in 2006 had 48 cosponsors and passed unanimously.

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and I have a new paper about how to use infotech to make government more transparent. We make specific suggestions, some of them counter-intuitive, about how to make this happen. The final version of our paper will appear in the Fall issue of the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. The best way to summarize it is to quote the introduction:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

In the current Presidential cycle, all three candidates have indicated that they think the federal government could make better use of the Internet. Barack Obama’s platform explicitly endorses “making government data available online in universally accessible formats.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, remarked that she wants to see much more government information online. John McCain, although expressing excitement about the Internet, has allowed that he would like to delegate the issue, possible to a vice-president.

But the situation to which these candidates are responding – the wide gap between the exciting uses of Internet technology by private parties, on the one hand, and the government’s lagging technical infrastructure on the other – is not new. The federal government has shown itself consistently unable to keep pace with the fast-evolving power of the Internet.

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Our approach follows the engineering principle of separating data from interaction, which is commonly used in constructing websites. Government must provide data, but we argue that websites that provide interactive access for the public can best be built by private parties. This approach is especially important given recent advances in interaction, which go far beyond merely offering data for viewing, to offer services such as advanced search, automated content analysis, cross-indexing with other data sources, and data visualization tools. These tools are promising but it is far from obvious how best to combine them to maximize the public value of government data. Given this uncertainty, the best policy is not to hope government will choose the one best way, but to rely on private parties with their vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas to discover what works.

To read more, see our preprint on SSRN.