Open Government and Transparency

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Open Government Workshop at Princeton University. The three main topics on the table were defining, designing, and sustaining transparency in government: all important aspects of fleshing out the Obama rhetoric of an open government especially as the technologists struggle to make sense of all of the data that the government is publishing as part of its transparency initiates.

So what does “Transparency” really mean? This was an object of debate among the first four panelists, Jon Weinberg (Wayne State), Helen Nissenbaum (NYU), Patrice McDermott (OpenTheGovernment.org) and J.H. Snider (iSolon.org). The general consensus definition is that transparency is the idea that the public can observe government decision making; that the government is open for inspection.

And while there was little argument that transparency facilitates democratic control and legitimacy, there was dissent (particularly from Nissenbaum) that not all government data needs to be transparent. “More can obscure, more can obfuscate, we want not all the information out there, but we want the information to be reduced Рto develop principles of reduction which take openness and turn it into transparency,” said Nissenbaum. Her primary argument comes from her study of privacy, though security was also mentioned. For example court records contain the names of jurors, but what would be the value of publishing that information?  This is an interesting nuance in comparison to the prevailing opinion of the technorati (that ALL data must be published).

In the absence of publishing everything though it seems that the government would need to develop guidelines for not only what was or wasn’t published, but also the rationale. At least then the public would know what was being withheld and why.

Next up was the panel on Designing Transparency including Ginny Hunt (Google), Clay Johnson (Sunlight Labs), Eric Kansa (UC Berkeley), and Josh Tauberer (GovtTrack.us). From a technological perspective this was the most interesting panel, especially hearing about all of the work that the Sunlight foundation has done to build a community of software developers interesting in making sense of the government data deluge. Sunlight is known for sponsoring large “app” contests, and Clay spoke extensively about the Sunlight strategy behind these contests. For instance, the Apps for America data.gov challenge was designed to help validate the release of the data by the government, to help find the most interesting data sources (a crowdsourcing approach), and to build community.

Clay acknowledged that most apps created via their contests are not sustainable, but that the goals of the contests were more about building a hacking community around the data. Indeed he referred to Sunlight Labs as, “A match.com for people who want non-romantic relationships and want to create open-source government projects.”

The next Sunlight contest will try to build community around the design / art component – to make government data more accessible and consumable rather than more pragmatic. While it’s great that Sunlight is spurring the creation of community and relationships between like-minded individuals, it’s hard to think that their approach is really sustainable.

I’ve argued before that there’s little impetus for building on and connecting the dots when there’s lots of apps the are birthed and die in such a short period of time. Sensemaking and making government data accessible is something where journalism institutions can and should take on the challenge of sustainability.