It only seems fitting that my first official post on my first official blog is about Sunlight Foundation‘s Transparency Camp 2012 – or as one attendee described it ‘drinking a Redbull for government accountability.’
Transparency Camp brings together a wide array of enthusiastic (and incredibly intelligent) people who are all interested in the same thing – opening up government, data, among many other things to help connect us all back to the processes that govern our lives. One of the best things about Transparency Camp was that there was something for everyone – I had nearly an hour long discussion about the evils of the PDF format while others were learning how to use Play-Doh to teach kids about open data. So while I’m sure there will be an endless number of blogs summarizing the unconference and its many sessions (and almost certainly many that will do it more deftly than myself), here are a few things I got out of it.
I’m not the only OpenGovernment Nerd. The people were amazing. The number of people I met that I could have talked to for hours about incredibly nerdy things was mind-blowing. There aren’t many people that I can babble on at about IATI and other Aid Transparency issues without their eyes glazing over, but I found them here. While the title of most enthusiastic was hotly contested, Todd Park – CTO of the United States – won. I was impressed that he would take the time to attend a conference like this – and even more when he wanted to be engaged at all levels. Opening the second day of the conference, he spoke about Datapalooza – the US Government’s effort to encourage data-driven innovation around health care. While the advancements that have been made through this initiative are pretty cool, what really stood out to me was the drive Mr. Park had – and his belief that opening government data has huge capacity to do good. Open Government isn’t entirely about holding government accountable, it can also be used to improve the relationship and services between governments and their citizens. Data isn’t only the outcome of Open Government, its the spark for innovation and advancement. (It also didn’t hurt that he signed off with “God bless you, and may the force be with you.”)
Bridging the gap between technology and transparency requires a meeting of the minds. One of the most insightful sessions I attended (held by Jed Miller and Hollie Gilman from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative) addressed the gap between logical, solution-driven programmers and flexible, bigger picture advocates (I’m also included International Development people in this second group).
There were two particular examples/analogies I thought described the problem well:
- Building a House – The advocate/NGO worker is the future tenet of the house. They have to live with the outcome, so it needs to be built for their needs. The programmer is the contractor, they have the technical expertise to actually build the house. However, in this relationship there is often not an architect. You can use pre-existing plans, but to meet the unique needs of the advocate, you need someone who understands the needs of the advocate who also understands how houses are best built. This is often the missing piece.
- Fishing – This example came from Trinidad, where the government held a competition to help fisherman decide when and where they should fish. A mobile application was created, but ended up being useless. Why? Because the data is was drawing on were the official government statistics from 2009 – three years earlier. Therefore the information provided by the app was often wrong, frustrating the fishermen instead of helping them. This gets at a theme that arose again and again – data has to be useful. Having data available is only the first step towards creating change.
Education is essential. Whether it is providing basic programming skills to advocates and international development experts, or teaching citizens what their governments actually do – education reinforces the power of data. Education is a great way to create demand for accountability. One questions I didn’t really get answered this weekend is why we assume anyone else cares. Obviously everyone at the unconference believed in the power of openness, but most people in the US, or elsewhere in the world, might not understand the utility and power of data – much less how to access it, apply it, and use it to create change. By engaging people in this movement, at any level, we can begin creating a more informed citizenry which is empowered by the available data. Data itself can is empowering, but when it can be used as a jumping off point for conversations its influence expands even further. Education within the Open Government community can also begin to bring us together and address some of the outstanding problems we’re all trying to solve. Listening to people from the government, and those from repressive countries gave great perspective on what ‘openness’ means even within this enthusiastic community.
Education for all players, enthusiastic people, data that is actually useful, and bridging gaps are probably the best overarching take-away’s for me from this weekend. I could ramble on for a really long time (as is clear from my perhaps overenthusiastic use of twitter), but these are all things I hope to address further in this blog. While I am by no means an expert in any of this, I hope that by diving into the nitty-gritty of these topics will help me navigate my way through this complex and endlessly fascinating world. Bear with me while I do.