24 June 2010

That nice map—nevermind

Well, in the "security" obsessed reality we live in, having something as simple as a not-very-high-resolution map of water pipes out there on the Internet is enough to make government-types wet their pants (water related puns—gotta love 'em!).

This morning, I received notice from Alan Heymann, the Public Affairs Director of DC Water, that the EPA contacted DC Water to let them know they believe the map is "sensitive information" and should not have been shared. Now, I'm not naive, and I understand the need for vigilance regarding threats to infrastructure in the nation's capital, but it seems to me that this kind of information doesn't add much value for someone looking to do harm to our water supply. The easiest places to do so, the open-air reservoirs at Dalecarlia, Georgetown, and McMillan are all well-guarded. Just try to take a photo at any of them, and a gruff person will threaten you with physical harm if you look in their direction for too long.

One of my mantras is "information wants to be free," so my initial response was to say, "Hell no, this is public property, and the public has a right to know about this." According to Flickr statistics, nearly 1200 people have taken the time to click on the largest version of the map, so the bird has flown the coop, so to speak, and the data is out there in the wild now.

But, Mr. Heymann has been a great help in solving the problem of 'Montello Springs' as well as offering the tour of the Bryant Street Pumping Station, so we've decided on a compromise. The highest resolution version of the map has been removed from Flickr, and we're including an annotated version below that shows the location of the reservoirs. You can still get the basic gist of our previous article from this map—that different sections and elevations of the city are fed from reservoirs that aren't necessarily the closest to that part of the city. That information is still readily available in text form on DC Water's website.

In thinking about all of this, Jaime discovered the EPA website called "MyEnvironment," where they tout "transparency, transparency, transparency" and openness, and discuss the sharing of maps and data with the public (http://dirt.asla.org/2009/09/08/government-2-0-epas-myenvironment/). In light of the recommendation to remove this map, we asked Alan Heymann if he feels that sites like "MyEnvironment" can ever truly meet the goal of openness? Should government agencies set explicit limits on what is appropriate to share? Here's his response:
I agree that generally, more information is better than less information. Many District residents don’t know much about the facilities and the agency that supply their drinking water, which was the idea behind the bloggers’ roundtable that you attended last week. Likewise, not everyone gets a chance to visit the inside of a pumping station, but you have the ability to take your audience there through your photos and words.

The General Manager and the rest of the team were pleased to see your informative, thoughtful take on the distribution system on Tuesday. At the same time, especially because this is the nation’s capital, we need to be mindful of security concerns. When the U.S. EPA mentioned to us that the posting of a detailed map online might put sensitive information into the wrong hands, I made the request that the map be removed from your post.

As you mentioned in the earlier post, our new name and logo are just part of an effort to connect with our customers in ways this agency has never done before. However, in hindsight, I probably erred a little too far on the side of openness and transparency in providing a high-resolution map of the distribution system for the web. I appreciate greatly your cooperation in agreeing to take it down, and I want to thank the GGW readers for their understanding as well. I’m looking forward to collaborating with you on future posts.

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