Web archiving, Open Government

by Chirag Verma on June 29, 2015

Why web archiving is essential to Open Government

Web technologies and tools are widely recognized as helpful players on the stage of Open Government. From online databases and RSS feeds to social media and mobile apps, they help agencies share information faster and more easily than ever before. Even small and local agencies are growing their online presence, as an affordable way to “do more with less”. So there is a steadily increasing amount of web content being published by governments of every size.

But the very technologies that empower open government can also be a hindrance. This is because the more information agencies publish online, the more digital information they are responsible for managing -- and preserving -- properly. Herein lies the hindrance to open government. If agencies aren’t prepared to capture, store, and organize their online content, they will fail to remain truly open and accountable. Here are some things to consider about digital records and how agencies can manage them in accordance with open government principles:

The record value of web content

Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and other guidelines which call for the preservation of government records definitely apply to electronic content. Since FOI is a cornerstone of open government, agencies must recognize the importance of saving their online information. Even social media posts have the potential to rise to record status, depending on the context.

“All users of these Internet-based capabilities must be aware of the potential record value of their content, including content that may originate outside the agency.” (Dept. of Defense, Memorandum For Responsible . . . Use of Internet-Based Capabilities)

You can’t share what you don’t save

Aside from the legal considerations of saving agency records, open government principles dictate that agencies should focus on “going the extra mile” to ensure transparency -- which means preserving web content so it can be shared if needed.

Digital government records must be maintained if agencies are to remain truly open to the public. As your agency updates its web pages, are the older versions lost? As conversations slide past on Twitter, is there a record of what has been said? How quickly can your agency respond to an FOI request if the records are buried in a confusing online database?

“The Government cannot be open and accountable if it does not preserve -- and cannot find -- its records.” (David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States)

Accessibility is vital

Accessibility is a central tenet of open government. Citizens should be able to access any content that was published by their agency -- even if it was published online, months or years ago. Of course this applies to datasets, court records, service information and so forth, but the trend of online communication between citizens and their governments has increased the expectation that even conversations will be saved -- comments on blogs, discussions in forums, and tweets on Twitter.

“[There’s a] public expectation that all web content is both permanently valuable and accessible.” (NARA, Guidance on Managing Records in Web 2.0/Social Media Platforms)

For future generations

Agencies have a commitment of openness to the citizens of today. But what about those of the future? The capture of digital government records must be done using technologies that will not become obsolete or unreadable within years or decades.

“Co-ordinated response to the growing challenge of managing digital information so that it is accessible now and remains discoverable in the future.” (The National Archives, UK, “Archives for the 12st Century”)

Why archiving?

So how is all this digital information to be saved? Agencies should understand that screen shots, server back-ups, and other forms of retention don’t provide the same security as an enduring web archive. Capturing and storing web content in its original format, web archiving solutions are independent of specific databases and exist in the cloud, so the files are always accessible and not affected by changes to a CMS or other system. Also, a good archive should provide an identical user experience to the original -- including playable videos, clickable links, etc.

Archiving is a process that can be automated, and equipped with search features so you can find the pages you need later -- which guarantees your agency will have the records requested for FOI or e-discovery cases. So governments that are serious about openness need to get serious about preserving their online records through archiving.

“Ensuring the ... capture and survival of vital public records is the ultimate guarantee of transparency for governments.” (Oliver Morley, Chief Executive and Keeper, The National Archives, UK)


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