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Shed some light on government data

I’ve been following the Sunlight Foundation for a little bit now and they are currently doing some great work around government and transparency. There has been a much larger, if not perfect, commitment to transparency under the Obama administration. For one example, go to to see where all the Recovery Act money is going.

While the efforts of the administration are acknowledged and praised, many in the transparency movement (including Sunlight) want to make sure these efforts are enshrined in law and culture. To accomplish this, Sunlight outlines at least three things needed for an open government:

  • Transparency Laws requiring public government data to be published online and in real time – accessible to any citizen, at any time from any location.
  • Transparency tools harnessing the latest online and mobile technology, allowing citizens, journalists and bloggers to search, sort, mash and make use of government data.
  • A Transparency Movement of citizens advocating for online, real-time access to public government data, and engaging with government in new ways to hold government accountable and make it work better for them.

The first point was recently addressed with the announcement of the Public Online Information Act (POIA), which is being introduced by Rep. Steve Isreal. Basically, the POIA:

requires Executive Branch agencies to publish all publicly available information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats. It also creates an advisory committee to help develop government-wide Internet publication policies.

Here is a brief video describing the law:

As for tools, the Sunlight Foundation sponsors an open source lab where government data is mashed up in all sorts of ways. For example, over at the labs, they used Socrata to share a list of White House visitors (released by the administration) cross referenced with lobbyist logs provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. You can also download an iPhone app, Real Time Congress, to see what’s going on on the House and Senate floors throughout the day, including reading the text of bills under consideration.

On the final point about a transparency movement, Sunlight is launching their national campaign this Thursday, March 18. This is a grassroots movement to educate and inspire people around what transparency can do for open government.

I like the approach that Sunlight is taking because they acknowledge that a more open government requires not just legislation, but an informed citizenry equipped with the right tools to make use of the data to create powerful information. They are attempting to create an ecosystem of transparency that could have profound effects on government.

Free data is not in of itself a good thing without the skills to interpret and extract value from that data. Many would rather keep government data locked away in paper formats that are hard or expensive to get at. Many organizations, including lobby groups are in a better position to manipulate that kind of data. Data that is free and online will not rid us of spin altogether, but it will be easier to hold the spinners accountable. That’s why the “Campaign for Transparency” is so important, because it begins the process of shifting our culture to understand how to act and respond to a transparent government. Imagine, as Daniel Roth did in Wired Magazine, if SEC data were accessible in easy to use online formats that allowed anyone to peer into public financial reports. Would someone sitting at a desk in Topeka, KS have discovered a flaw early enough in the system to bring national attention to it?

Why do I care so much about this? Because it fits perfectly into my life ambition to bring people more wholly and effectively into civic engagement. It aligns well to the work we do at PlaceMatters as good data is incredibly important to an informed planning process.