The new world of government transparency through technology

The big news lately is that the Center for Responsive Politics opened up their large database of normalized campaign contribution records under a Creative Commons license. I think this is more significant to the world of government transparency & technology than it might appear. Just around five years ago this world was quite different. Organizations like CRP were very much using technology to bring new insight to civics. That hasn’t changed. But organizations saw themselves as solitary entities whose primary mission was to provide a new direct-to-citizen service to the public. A web application, for instance. There’s no need for me to list off other examples — every advocacy and government transparency website was like that, to the best of my recollection. (Except maybe IMSP who seemed to be ahead of the pack.)

All that has changed, and I wish I could pinpoint exactly how that happened. The combination of “Web 2.0” as a buzz-word and grassroots digital campaigning in 2004 probably had a lot to do with it. The Howard Dean presidential campaign got a boost (at least in terms of publicity if not poll numbers) from developers coming together to specialize the Drupal open source CMS for political campaigning (“CivicSpace”). That sent a message, even if no one quite recognized it at the time, that developers have a role to play in the world of civics and that cooperation was a viable model for getting things done. Not to say that the CivicSpace project invented this — I was working on GovTrack for a few years by that point and across the pond Tom Steinberg and the MySociety group had been thinking about open source civics for even longer. But I suspect, even in my own thinking, that CivicSpace crystalized some vague earlier notions of civic hacking.

The story isn’t over yet, though, because I don’t think any of this alone would have brought us to where we are today. Unfortunately, from this point forward I run the risk of giving too much credit to the things I know about and not enough credit elsewhere. Still, here’s how I see it. Four more things had to happen, independently. First, entrepreneur Mike Klein had to make a lot a lot a lot of money. Second, Dan Newman and David Moore had to build MAPLight.org and OpenCongress.org, respectively. These are, now, and especially were at the start, leading examples of how you can do really cool new things by mixing data sources (for MAPLight, mixing my GovTrack legislation data with campaign contribution data from CRP) or re-mixing data sources (for OpenCongress giving my legislation data a more social spin). Third, John Wonderlich had to start, quite by accident, the Open House Project — this was a crucial step in bridging the technology world with staffers for congressmen, especially with Speaker Pelosi’s office. The fourth bit was that Ellen Miller and Micah Sifry had to put it all together and form the Sunlight Foundation: funding from Mike going to two great technology projects (IMO these are Sunlight’s most important grantees) and a policy arm with teeth because of its pragmatic approach to connecting with policymakers.

That’s pretty much it, because from there things just make sense. Sunlight recruited great staff and steamrolled through the open government world stamping out the idea that each open government group should be in its own little world — by funding interaction, in a sense.

The expectations for government transparency advocacy changed. Groups had to walk the walk a bit more by sharing and collaborating. So now besides CRP’s data being opened up for anyone to remix we have the Taxpayers earmark data, the Sunlight Labs API, the MAPLight API, and probably several more databases. The New York Times API probably owes some of its inspiration to these changing expectations too. So it’s a whole new world now of not just open governenment, and not even open government data, but open government transparency advocacy data. (Is there a catchier name for that?)

5 thoughts on “The new world of government transparency through technology”

  1. Thank you for the post Joshua. Your account will help analysts and historians of the movement. I have a couple of questions.

    1. Can you give more details about the moment when Sunlight promoted collaboration through funding? (“Sunlight recruited great staff and steamrolled through the open government world stamping out the idea that each open government group should be in its own little world — by funding interaction, in a sense. The expectations for government transparency advocacy changed.”)

    2. You put the focus here on the hacktivists of the movement and don’t mention the open data hackademics (Beth Noveck, etc.). Being both an hacktivist and an hackademic yourself, which role do you think the research world played in this? (Another good example of open data hacktivist & hackademic is Jerry Brito)

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  2. Hey,

    1) I’ll just go down the list of Sunlight’s grants (http://sunlightfoundation.com/grants/) and pick off the ones that I think are relevant to this answer: Any grant toward a wiki project, funding Public.Resource.Org for conferences, toward Geocoder.us’s API, to NIMSP for API, to MAPLight and OpenCongress, to Taxpayers for Common Sense (now they publish their earmark Excel spreadsheet), to Metavid (an open source project), to Watchdog which mixed data from other sources, and to CRP to open their data. They also ran the TransparencyCamp conference a few months ago.

    2) I love those terms, hacktivist and hackademic — haven’t heard them before. I’m not sure what the role of the hackademics have been in, say, the narrow theme I was addressing of orgs opening up their data. I’ve never met Beth, which just goes to show that our worlds aren’t that close. Another hackademic is my friend David Robinson at Princeton’s CITP- we’ve influenced each other’s thinking, so there’s that. But it feels like the two worlds are fairly separate, except, as you note, when one person is in both worlds (and I wouldn’t really consider myself a hackademic).

    I don’t want to underplay the significance of the work I didn’t mention too much. There was certainly a lot going on in the last few years besides what I mentioned that all points to this growing movement. It’s just that what I picked out where what I believe to be the key events that directly changed where we are today in terms of sharing data in the nonprofit world.

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  3. Josh, very on-point thoughts here. I think it’s a really useful exercise in laying out the roadmap of how we got to this point, where there are indeed rich resources for political engagement burgeoning out there, so good insight. I think your substance is correct too — I just wanted to add personally that I appreciate you were writing in quick summary style, but that we’re proud OpenCongress is an open-source effort of the Participatory Politics Foundation (team members & mission statement can be found :: http://participatorypolitics.org/) and Sunlight — in other words, haha, certainly didn’t create it myself — again realize that you realize this, just for posterity, you know.

    Also — OpenCongress has a new API in beta that everyone is encouraged to check out :: opencongress.org/api — providing access to much of the social data you mentioned generated by visitors & users on our site. Thanks for continuing to play your vital role in structuring Congressional data for all these uses & more exciting work to come.

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  4. Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for your feedback and for adding David Robinson’s name to my dataset. I use the terms hacktivist & hackademics in an article about the “architecture of transparency” (to be published later this year in a refeered journal dealing with the issue of collaboration. I’ll send you a draft when it’s ready). But the point here is the role of people like Jerry, You and David who can easily bridge these two “fairly separate” worlds and thus act as connectors between some innovative concepts in policy (collaborative governance) and in technology (web of data). Understanding the cultural differences that already exist inside this small world of “open data / open government” gives an idea of the huge cultural gap with people inside the political machine (civil servants, agencies, etc.) who mistake a server for a waiter 🙂

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  5. Thanks for the clarifications, David. I got a little fast and loose.

    I’m sitting here listening to Greg Elin talking about how Sunlight started, and I have to add that the presence of the Personal Democracy Forum also had a large role in how this all went forward.

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