Government Transparency is Our Responsibility: Apps for America

By Timothy M. O'Brien
January 21, 2009

What follows is a call to participate in Sunlight Labs Apps for America.

The Obama Administration has professed a commitment to transparency and open access to information. While the current Administration's commitment to openness is encouraging, it will mean nothing if the technology community does not take up the reins and help to create the systems that drive a more accountable and connected system. Regardless of your political ideas, if you are watching the slow machinery of our Federal government switch gears and are wondering how to involve yourself, you don't need to send in a resume to some government official or even ask anyone's permission. Governance, and government generally, is not the protected domain of elected or appointed officials, it is the product of individual initiative transformed into collective desire.

Government, like open source, thrives on individual initiative, and if you are looking for something "important" to dedicate your time to in the coming years, you should consider committing your time and effort toward helping to create a more transparent, more electronic, more "open-source" government.

Access Isn't Enough

As technologists, we need to ensure that there is an appetite for this data, and that there are ready-made avenues through which fund-raising numbers, statistics, voting records can be made more obvious and more relevant to the general population. The current Federal Government is a beheamoth of regulations and massive budgets, there are departments within departments the names of which you would never know unless you sat in an conference committee hearing and knew what to look for. While some people enjoy this level of detail and seek out C-SPAN in the wee hours of the night during budget negotiations, most of the public is blissfully unaware of the most basic machinery of government.

As the Inaugural celebrations were concluding yesterday, I had the cynical thought that this moment marks both the beginning and the end of the Obama Admistration for most of the public. As the last baton of the parade is twirled into the air, a nation unfamiliar with the Congressional Record switches back to American Idol and 24. I am a contrarian cynic the day after an historic occasion, but I'm also a realist. The public doesn't connect with government, we're not paying attention to the Omnibus Budget Bill of FY2008 or a difficult, but essential hearing on government whistleblowers by someone like Christopher Shays (formerly R-CT). We need to find new ways to use technology to..

..make it relevant

Google's audacious goal was to make the world's information more accessible, they've successfully done this, but if you follow the work of Google Executives like Marrisa Mayer, you'll know they didn't get there over night. Google had to invest a great deal of effort not just into making information accessible, they had to invest real effort into organizing and presenting new information to a new audience. We, the developer community, must do the same with government feeds and data. The goal of the technology community should be to use technology to make political, legislative, and administrative data not only available, but integrated into the public conciousness. You and your neighbors should know, at any given time, who your representives top corporate donor is, and how they voted on a bill yesterday.

Work on ways to visualize legislation, to "translate" legislation to plain English. Create virtual platforms for debate that are built atop real-time legislative feeds. If Congress refuses to debate a critical issue or an important bill, we should be using platforms like YouTube and Wikipedia to create the vibrant multi-party Democracy we have often lacked. We shouldn't just be creating systems to display lazy voting data in widgets, we should be creating systems that fuse data in ways our legislators despise. Who gave what to whom and what did they get in return? We should be vicious and audacious in using the power of data and analytics to free ourselves from corruption and inefficiency.

(Who wants to play Maximilien Robespierre on the Committee for Public Transparency?)

Participate in Sunlight Labs "Apps for America"

Sunlight Labs is one of several organizations dedicated to the idea of great transparency in government, and they are sponsoring a competition for people to use several open source APIs and tools to create novel applications and ways to slice and dice gov't data. You can enter today, you don't have to ask anyone's permission, and all you need to do is join a Google Group and register for an API key.


Forget the competition, I've never been motivated to participate in Open Source by the lure of financial reward. Instead, you should take some time to experiment with the free APIs. Scratch an itch. Find a novel way to merge campaign finance data with your Facebook profile to see how red or blue your friends are or if they are clustered into political groups. Find a way to track political blogs or correlate seemingly disparate geographic data with a feed of votes on a single issue. I've spoken to many over the past few months who would say that such work is the work of "precision journalists" or tech-savvy programmers in the newsroom, and I've also spoken to others who would have me believe that government agencies like the OMB should be responsible for APIs and platforms to facilitate mashups. I think we need to do it ourselves, and I don't think that we can rely on the Fourth Estate or the government to do this work for us.

As technologists, we have the opportunity to create open source platforms that help organize and present government information in a way that encourages participation.

Participation and Irreversible Transparency

As the public confronts trillion dollar stimulus packages and multi-trillion dollar wars, we are desensitized the magnitude and degree to which inefficiency and outright corruption rule the day in DC. Having a government that publishes reams and reams of data in electronic format will make no difference if there is no application available to process this data. We will be no closer to an ideal, informed citizenry in the presence of this "magic" data. Transparency without the demand for data will be as good as no transparency at all. We, as technologists, have the capabilities to parse and widely distribute this data in creative and unexpected ways that will affect the foundation of participative democracy well into the future.

While the Obama administration is committed to transparency, this doesn't mean that we should assume that future Presidents (and Speakers of the House) will be as enamored with the idea of the ever-participating, ever-commenting electronic audience. To this end, "we" as technologists need to help people like Carl Malamud and organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation create an irreversible system of transparency, something so revolutionary and so compelling that no future government would even think of retreating to a less-transparent government.

Don't miss the opportunity, take the initiative and participate in Apps for America today.

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