Supporting Data: notes from #TCamp2010

I am a strong believer in Art as part of public life. Art is not separate from government, society, education, development, family, or community. Some people think that Art is a set aside, but I think Art is real, and worth supporting in a real way. Government transparency is actually quite similar. Government transparency is now a very broad term of art (sic) and like Art, you have to understand the mechanisms of transparency to design effective support for it.

Thanks to Google, the Sunlight Foundation, and iStrategy Labs, I was able to attend Transparency Camp 2010 (#tcamp2010) a few weekends ago on the campus of George Washington University. One of my earliest 4468341210_6828b8d22bcontacts at the conference involved stumbling into Laurel Ruma in a discussion of regional government efficiency. She is one of the editors of the new bible of Open Government, conveniently enough titled: Open Government. In Beth Simone Noveck’s article Single Point of Failure in that book, Noveck writes, “When the public cannot see how decisions are arrived at, it cannot identify problems and criticize mistakes. Accountability declines and so does government effectiveness.” This is one of the central arguments for transparency: efficiency.

Oepn-Government-CoverThere was general agreement at TCamp on the need for case studies showing cost savings from agencies and local governments; ie. existing agency costs for services, integration of open government initiatives, and comparative agency costs post-integration. Technology is allowing enhanced services, but in this economy the ability to show immediate cost savings over current service delivery is critical (and viable.) In its most limited application that looks like: if you save yourself 5 or 10 FOIA requests, that will more than pay for the cost of a data-sharing site, and then you never have to incur that FOIA cost again. But it goes into city planning, emergency services, etc.

There are a variety of arguments opposing transparency, including:

1 – “It’s my data, you can’t have it”
2 – The basic fear that if data is shared someone will find something that should have been hidden.
3 – “Security reasons”

It seems that economic efficiency and political leadership are creating the required momentum to overcome these challenges, stimulated by a growing base of activists. In TCamp sessions there was discussion of tethering of data (for security) and un-tethering of expertise and participation. There was also discussion of how transparency can facilitate non-industry public positively penetrating deeper into expert fields. This was echoed in Open Government (by Malamud and others), and I hope I’m an example of it.

I was intrigued by the discussion of the need to control data flood, and find ways to make data local (and the need to distinguish between high value and low value data.) Massive new streams of data make interfaces (applications) more important, and iteratively, the standards for the creation and storing of data. Computer work is an industry, and as in politics, there is a real benefit to leading this movement. As Colleen Gray shared in her post about #TCamp2010, local government transparency “is a promising trend.”

For many of us at the conference we see that there is a roll for data and data development in policy creation, and this extends out of the purely public sector. I was intrigued to learn of the World Bank’s new transparency initiative that would make payments from loans public data. Most of the work done by governments and non-profits has nothing to do with public safety and security, and providing open access to data (and stimulating innovation in presenting and sharing that data) is a great way to encourage community participation and support.