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Transparency: A Fresh Look at the Bitcoin Foundation, Part Two

Published on March 2nd, 2015 by samj
In my first post in this series, I introduced some basic aspects of the foundation and provided a single example of what I call fragmented communication; in part two, I will look at what information is and isn't currently available from the Bitcoin Foundation website.

According to the transparency page, there are several faces involved with the organization. While it is acknowledged that some of these people are paid employees and others are volunteers, the website does not share this information directly. If a user wants to find out, they have to manually dig through a scanned tax return (PDF). Even then, it only shares figures from 2013.

It is understandable that the tax and financial system moves slowly, but the fact that a user only has access to certain information (for instance determining who paid employees are) via a document that is more than a year old makes it extremely difficult to access information that is still relevant. My own personal standards are that financial information should be provided in a more up-to-date manner, but perhaps the current system is a necessary compromise in a world where Bitcoin has not yet become more accepted.

Going against the page’s title ("transparency"), no information is shared regarding current membership figures, and there is no way to see direct contact information, social media links, or further biographical information about any of the foundation's employees or board members.

This lack of information makes it challenging to ascertain exactly what each person's responsibility actually encompasses, what they do on a day-to-day basis, or whether they work for the foundation as a volunteer or as a paid employee. A great example of this is the peculiar case of Andrew Lampe's profile, which describes his role as "product" with no further explanation. (Although the "product" title is listed on other websites, there is still not explanation of what that title entails.)

—Lampe's role: "Product"

[Note: Since this post was written Andrew Lampe has left the foundation on good terms and has been replaced by Zach Taylor which will be reflected on the transparency page soon. Please see update at the end of this post for more information.]

If I ignore the foundation’s website for a moment, open up a new browser window, and search externally, I quickly discover on Lampe's LinkedIn profile that his job is actually "technical director," and from other search results, I can ascertain that he is a NASA veteran (two qualities that may be good to share with potential donors and contributors).

Among other pages is a thread within the forum's "News and Announcements" section that quotes the foundation's blog. It provides some actual description of Lampe's role, or at least what it was at the time the post was written (July 29, 2014):

"I’m pleased to welcome to our team Andrew Lampe, a 15 year technology veteran, as a member of the management team. As Technical Director, Andrew will lead the foundation’s web development team, provide oversight to our technical grant program, and oversee corporate technology infrastructure. His range and depth of experiences allow him to easily switch between the roles of CTO, lead architect and software developer, when necessary. Membership engagement is a priority and we’re excited to have Andrew’s expertise in developing that experience while maintaining high standards for integrity and security of the overall infrastructure. [...]

Andrew will be instrumental in the successful transition and deployment of the foundation’s new website that we are launching next week."

Of course, you wouldn't actually know any of this unless you had either:
  • Used a search engine
  • Read through the foundation's blog about twenty pages in (because this is the only way to currently navigate it)
  • Decided to browse through the foundation's unlinked forum to a subforum titled "news and announcements," where the most recent thread is dated from October 11, 2014.
This is yet another example of fragmented communication that currently exists through most of the foundation's web presence. Rather than the information being shared from one central point, it is hidden away and outdated. While I can understand that the blog post was merely an introduction for a new employee, it is the only information I can find on the foundation's website.

Gavin Andresen, "chief scientist," enjoys what could easily be considered a historical reputation within the Bitcoin community, yet a newcomer to Bitcoin probably won't be able to comprehend exactly what his job description encompasses (without having to Google it, of course).

In an instant, the foundation’s entire function has been superseded by an external search engine. As a member, I have had to make my own effort in finding information that one should fully expect to see on a page entitled "transparency."

You can probably already see from these examples that the website's stated functions present a major contradiction. I'm an end user looking for transparency and finding nothing that even resembles it. I am only left with more questions and very few answers.

As I clearly spelled out in my first post, I am not a programmer, nor am I initimately aquainted with how open-source software is developed. Shouldn't this information be conveyed in a manner that is accessible to people who are not familiar with these topics? If we were discussing a for-profit entity, then these issues wouldn't be so important, but considering that "resources come from the community" (in the foundation's own words), helping that community feel included could help them understand why they need to contribute in the first place.

If the website were a resource to which we could present questions, this would be my line of questioning so far:
  1. How many employees are paid to work at the foundation? Check the scanned PDF for some data from 2013.
  2. What are the specific roles of these employees? No idea beyond a very brief job description.
  3. What project is person "xyz" working on right now? No idea.
  4. Who is responsible for the website? No idea.
  5. How much does the foundation rely on membership fees to operate? Check the scanned PDF and rely on data from 2013.
  6. How many members are there? No idea.
  7. Can I please have some historical figures for membership? No idea.
  8. Can you please tell me when member "xyz" of staff started or stopped working at the foundation? No idea.
  9. Can you please tell me what day the next board meeting will be held on? No idea.
  10. Can you please direct me toward what happens during board meetings? No idea.

There are no obvious privacy ramifications involved with any of these questions that I can fathom (some may disagree), so exactly why they would need to be hidden from public view only raises further questions instead of answering them. To be very clear, I am not asking for people's personal information, their salary or street address. I am asking for information that I consider to be fairly basic and condusive to people having interest in the foundation's activities.

It probably goes without saying that in this day and age people (regardless of intention) will seek out the answers to these questions from external sources and use them regardless of accuracy. If information isn't presented in a clear way, then people will accept what is most convenient and stick with it. This has huge ramifications beyond users being inconvenienced, especially when journalists begin to publish incorrect information simply because it isn't available straight from the horse's mouth. (I will discuss this topic in an upcoming post.)

Rather than rely on using the general website to answer these questions, I could also use the forum and dig through about 1,000 threads to find some answers, try to field my questions towards staff via the forum, or use the contact information provided via the website.

Indeed, I could hope that someone might answer in the next few minutes, hours, or days with information that will only ever be relevant at this particular moment, or I could ask for a website that provides this information for me. All of my questions could have easily been answered within seconds of my visit to the transparency page, yet instead require copious amounts of research, or wasting multiple people's time to answer (and it will still take anywhere from hours to weeks to even get a response).

I mentioned the forum a few sentences ago, and some people may be confused and wonder which forum I am talking about. The foundation does have a forum, but you wouldn't know initially because it isn’t even linked to on the front page. Instead, you have to find it through a Google search.

Historical snapshots of the website dating as far back as October 1, 2012 show that the front page at one time did have a link to the forum. Further analyzing these snapshots, we learn that starting on or around August 21, 2014 the website moved to a new design that curiously removed any mention of the forum.

These dates show that newcomers to the foundation's website over the past 193 days (and counting) have likely been completely unaware that the forum even exists. You may think someone made a mistake and the missing link is just an oversight, but sadly as we are talking about the Bitcoin Foundation, you would actually be wrong. It involves a long-winded chain of events relating to user privacy, trust, and transparency issues. (The forum and its public and private nature is another topic I will cover in more detail in a subsequent post.)

While it is easy to point at the website and say it is inadequate, it is important to mention that because the organization is nonprofit, some or all of these responsibilities may fall upon volunteer staff. If the website's lack of transparency has the side effect of making users disinterested in the foundation, then it is probably working against making people want to volunteer their time or money towards improving things. I don't feel the need to put words into anyone's mouth about the current website, and I am sure that any discerning person can come to their own conclusions regarding its effectiveness. While this may come across as a critique of web design, my intention is more focused on pointing out the lack of available information.

Much of what I have been discussing already existed on the prior website to some extent.

—Left: Website featuring more descriptive information and social media links (web.archive.org: April 2013)
—Right: Website featuring less information (February 27, 2015)

—Left: "About" page featuring more information laid out in a clear, easy-to-digest manner (web.archive.org: July 2, 2013)
—Right: Selected images from front page of website featuring less information hidden behind an image slider (February 27, 2015)

Besides the obvious differences between these websites, it is important to mention that both are most static in nature.  There is no mention of any of the following via the front page:
  • Recent forum topics
  • Recent board meeting minutes
  • Recent github updates
  • Recent interviews or external media
  • Recent blog posts
In order to see updated content for those topics or sections, you would have to visit five different parts of the website (assuming that you already know about the unmentioned forum). This cannot be called effective.

On the topic of the foundation blog, it is a fantastic example of minimalist design—so minimalist that it does away with tags, comments, date-sorted archives, or even a search box. Rather than being able to filter the blog's content, a user can currently do no more than sift through forty-two pages of posts (or search by author if they are particularly dedicated) in the hope of finding information relevant to their needs.

I can only speak for my own standards when it comes to issues of transparency and website functionality, but I invite people to visit the foundation website and see first-hand what is available.

In the next post, I will discuss member numbers as well as issues of general communication (particularly surrounding the recent election).

[NOTE: Many of the dates I have used in this post are only representative of information available at this time through web.archive.org. If you are interested in finding out more, consider reading the Internet Archive's FAQ page.]

[UPDATE #1: A previous version of this post indicated that Andrew Lampe had disappeared from the transparency page, I have since reached out to the foundation and been informed that he has left on good terms and been replaced by Zach Taylor which will be reflected on the transparency page soon--
March 3, 2015]

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