- “a trans-partisan tribe of open government advocates from all walks — government representatives, technologists, developers, NGOs, wonks and activists — to share knowledge on how to use new technologies to make our government transparent and meaningfully accessible to the public.”
“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”
— Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
What is “transparency in government,” anyway? Here’s an outline as applied to federal government, but the ideals are relevant to state and local government as well.
- Transparency: Government should be transparent.
Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset.
- Participation: Government should be participatory.
Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.
- Collaboration: Government should be collaborative.
Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.
So, on this balmy August weekend, I and about 150 people from all over the US, (Canada, Brazil, Russia, and Israel too), came into Building 40 on the Google campus in Mountain View California to talk about transparency. Since the format was as an “unconference,” there was no formal agenda, though the folks from Sunlight Foundation layered a little bit of structure by giving opening and closing remarks, setting the time schedule, and facilitating a few things along the way.
The participants included plenty of heavy weights from the non-profit, government, technology, and academic sectors, as well as a healthy showing of both professional and civic activists and journalist. I was personally thrilled when I arrived and learned that Esther Dyson was there (and a little star-struck, I have to admit, but more on that below), whose writing and activism has influenced me.
Plus, for some reason, she reminded me of my dear sister; so I had this unfounded warm feeling toward Esther, which was in direct opposition to feeling shy toward her.
A Personal Aside
As people began to arrive and before the opening remarks, folks were setting up laptops, and generally doing the meet and greet. “Hi, I’m Ross,” I say to the guy next to me at a table while firing up my laptop. “Dmitry,” he says with a thick Russian accent. I can’t resist the temptation and ask if he’s Russian, which clearly he is… from Krasnoyarsk, but now works in IT for the District of Columbia, DC government, and has for many years. I explain that I studied Russian in college, and we both go back to our computer work. I figure we’ll continue the conversation later.
Then, while I’m deep in my laptop, I overhear a woman introducing Dmitry to another Russian. I look up and I get an instant knot in my throat… it’s Esther Dyson introducing Dmitry to Ilya, a member of the Russian Duma and head of their hi-tech subcommittee. It’s not like I would have known a Russian Duma member by sight, mind you, but the knot in my throat was from the rush of A) seeing Esther Dyson for the first time ever, and B) that my first encounters here at Transparency Camp involve Russians. A large part of my professional life, you see, was spent in Russian publishing, but this had nothing to do with why I came to Transparency Camp, for crying out loud. What are the odds?
Plus, the sight of these two thoroughly modern Russians from well east of the Urals just did not jibe with Ian Frazier’s delicious New Yorker article about his travels in Siberia I’d just read the night before on the plane ride from Orange County.
So, I naturally want to meet these people, but I’m still stuck on the unlikely coincidence of what’s happening in front of my eyes. I’m sitting at the Google offices for a government transparency conference… Russians?
I’m not part of their conversation–just sitting at the table a couple feet away–when I overhear Esther mention she just spent time in Russia, and now I’m thinking: great, I’ve got an ice-breaker to use to introduce myself to Esther as well as Ilya. The thing is, though, as I’m thinking about the ice-breaker, I’ve suddenly become aware that I’m “star-struck,” (and I’m staring at them, uncomfortably).
This realization catches me totally by surprise. I grow flush with embarrassment and retreat to my computer screen, before I even realize it. In fact, I’m a little flustered (in my head I hear: “Ross, you’re star-struck by Esther… nah nah… You’re embarrassed… star-struck… really? Isn’t that cute… come on, you’ve met plenty of famous writers… wow, I really am… this isn’t going away”) ; so I pack up the laptop and walk away with an odd smirk on my face, entirely confident I’ll create the opportunity to meet each of these folks later.
Let’s Get This Unconference Started
Time for the opening remarks: “we are the Sunlight Foundation… Thanks to Google for the use of this great space…” etc. By the way, this conference was totally free for attendees, thanks to The Sunlight Foundation and Google, including food. Super cool, if you ask me. I mean think about it, there are people out there who are donating significant money to Sunlight in order to cultivate more tools and techniques for the future of the American political process. To you donors: we get it, we see the value, and appreciate what you’re doing.
The first order of business was a challenge to everyone in the room: introduce yourself to the audience using only three words. Well, start with your name and any affiliation you want to mention, then add three words–no more, no less–to describe your interests. It’s harder than you think… “local civic engagement” is what came out of my mouth.
After that, the group started posting discussion topics on the wall and the conference agenda started taking shape, in that self-organizing, unconferency sort of way. Here are the sessions I chose for the first day:
- Architecting Solutions for Archiving and Citing Government Data
- MapLight.org — Money and Politics, Demo & Tour, Backend Research Tools and API
- Health Transparency Discussion
- Mapping Power and Influence Networks
- Transparency vs Privacy
- Bootstrapping Open Data in Your City
- Civic Engagement — Building a World Class, Scalable Model in Silicon Valley
- The “Apps for America” Initiative — A First Look at this Open Source/Open Data Software Development Contest
I’ll blog about most, if not all, of those sessions separately, but for now here’s a sampling of some of the questions that came up through the course of the weekend:
- who owns local government data?
- how does one reward social good? does a social act deserve a social reward?
- should government just make data available, but not create the user interface for that data?
- how do we usefully index government video streams?
- who owns video streams of government events?
- who owns commercial data sets purchased by government offices?
- what are the best practices for starting a government open data or transparency initiative? Policy, advocacy, grass-roots?
- how can we structure a functional public dialog about end-of-life choices and healthcare?
- how can we teach and scale up the specific skills of responsible media consumers today and in the future?
- how can we separate bias (or opinion) from fact in journalism?
- how do we make incomprehensible jargon & gov-speak more accessible?
- what was missing from Transparency Camp West?
What do you think? Are any of these question interesting to you?