Getting My Transparency On

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tcamp09This past weekend, Phil Ashlock and I headed down to DC to participate in TransparencyCamp, a BarCamp event put on by the Sunlight Foundation.  We spent two days with ~200 open government and transparency advocates from all sectors — government, non-profit, tech, etc.  All in all, it was a pretty amazing event — great people and good sessions.  We learned about some cool projects, met a ton of people, spread the word about TOPP, and basically got our transparency on.  Here are some of my really quick takeaways, in no particular order:

Tech people love twitter. The whole weekend was basically a giant twitter party.  Walking around any session, pretty much every single person’s screen looked like this:

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In case you’re wondering, that is TweetDeck, an all-powerful Twitter client.  Using TweetDeck, you can follow conversations along twitter hashtags just like you’d follow conversation in an IRC channel.  Amazingly, the ~200 people at TCamp pushed #tcamp09 to be the #1 Twitter search term for the weekend.  So every session was two conversations at once — one in person and the other via tweets.  The tweet stream also served as live, distributed note-taking, and is probably more rich than the wiki in terms of content.

Open Government and Transparency are a really big deal. If you don’t know, now you know.  This was evidenced by the big, high-quality crowd — folks from major federal agencies, the Obama campaign, Recovery.gov, Tim O’Reilly, Craig Newmark, just to name a few — and by the tangible sense of community and excitement.  The train has left the station and everybody is along for the ride. Andrew Hoppin is breaking new ground at the NYS Senate, Sunlight is driving the transparency bus (to continue the transit metaphors), and events are happening at rapid-fire pace (like Government 2.0 Camp next month).

Governments are just learning how to handle it all. One session was called “Drinking from the Firehose,” where the firehose is the potentially overwhelming stream of constituent feedback that can come in once you open the spigot.  For agencies that are already under-staffed and generally not as web-comfortable as the private sector, this can be a lot to handle. Getting it right can require a pretty significant re-thinking of government->citizen communication — most importantly, this means managing constituent expectations, and empowering more people in an agency to be communicators.  Other potential solutions included encouraging more citizen-to-citizen communcations (w/ gov acting as a router), prioritizing questions and responding in bulk (like NH power did via twitter during the big winter storm), etc. etc.

Many “government 2.0 sites” are actually rethinking core concepts of government. I am no political scientist, but it’s clear that technology is leading the way in exploring twists on representative democracy as we know it.  Projects like WhiteHouse2, MetaGovernment and YourOwnDemocracy are exploring new ways of employing citizen preference (voting) to impact decision-making.

Transparency has many levels, and starting at the source is the best. For example, Recovery.gov is collecting and aggregating info from all recipients of federal stimulus/bailout money.  They will then be republishing it all in machine readable format.  However, this introduces a layer of abstraction, and in strict terms, an opportunity for corruption.  Transparency advocates push for access to data at the source — in this case, directly from each individual recipient.  This is, of course, not practical at the moment, and many new transparency-related services are doing the hard work of transforming the data to make it accessible (in a geoserver-ish kind of way).

There are many policy barriers to transparency, and they’re not just technical. The actual government employees at tcamp expounded on the internal bureaucratic hurdles to transparency.  While the larger tech community is tackling the strictly technical issues (such as formats and standards), many of those inside government are working to reform 20th century policies that make transparency difficult to achieve.

Government transparency and civic engagement go hand in hand. One line I overheard that I really liked was: “a ‘push’ government can encourage relevant contributions from citizens by providing relevant data.”  I think there’s something really powerful in that, and somewhere in there is a core idea for TOPP and TOPP Labs.  If we are interested in encouraging citizen participation and empowering individuals, the opening up of government data will be a core component.  It’s my theory that there’s a huge latent demand for participation, but that people just don’t know how or don’t have the right ways to engage.  The proliferation of civic data that’s on the way should provide ample seed for interesting citizen engagement projects.

Distributed systems need a way to cooperate. Of course, a huge challenge here, that’s not unique to government — information and accounts are siloed across systems.  A lot of the conversations at TCamp focused on ways to share data across systems.  There was talk of OpenID, OAuth, microformats, DiSo, semantic web, and all the others.  One of the more interesting presentations was on the potential civic uses for the semantic web.  Joshua Tauberer of GovTrack.us keeps a piece of the Linked Open Data cloud in his data store, and can do pretty impressive queries of distributed data regarding federal legislation, lawmakers, campaign contributions, etc.

Ok, that’s about it for my little brain dump, for now.  I’ll leave you with some photos of the event after the jump:

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Opening session.  Photo by Avelino Maestas

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Craig Newmark delivers opening address.  Photo by Avelino Maestas.

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A typical session.  Photo by Corbett3000.

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The session board.  Photo by Corbett3000.

Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs working the board like the commodities market.  Photo by notbrucelee.

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Smaller session.  Photo by Corbett3000.
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People tweeting.  Photo by notbrucelee.
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Some familiar faces.  Photo by Avelino Maestas.
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Phil trying to stay awake during a session.  Photo by Avelino Maestas.

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Session notes from “Drinking from the Firehose”.  Photo by forumone.
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Another session board.  Photo by Andrew Macurak.

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