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Data hounds 
and watchdogs: How transparency
 can save democracy

By Greg Sanders

In January 2008, the Chicago Tribune scored a point for the fourth estate by documenting how “a building boom greased by millions of dollars in political donations to aldermen has remade the face of neighborhoods.” The newspaper’s methods were as striking as its findings: “The Tribune examined 5,700 zoning changes approved by the City Council over the last decade and recorded on sheets of paper clipped into binders in a City Hall office.”
The zoning expose illustrates at least two important lessons. First, we need watchdogs to keep an eye on government and other large institutions. Next, there has to be a better way to do so.
Is the tradition of reporters sifting through stacks of paper really the best oversight mechanism we can manage? As long as we’re using paper-based or obsolete digital record-keeping systems, maintaining the status quo amounts to withholding public information.
Government agencies at all levels withhold important information routinely, sometimes by design but more often by default; the typical response to information requests is not denial but inaction. (As Information Architect for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, I sometimes fail to respond to data requests. More on that later.) In the digital age, however, the only legitimate reasons for withholding public information by government agencies are if the release could jeopardize public health or safety, personal privacy or business confidentiality.
Granting these exceptions, some 90 percent of the information held by government agencies could be safely released and cleansed to remove sensitive information, such as by masking certain data or aggregating raw data into summary statistics.
As for the Chicago Tribune and the city’s zoning problem, a policy of releasing zoning variances immediately over the Internet in a searchable format would better serve both the city and the public. Would aldermen’s mug shots have ended up on the front page if the details of their dealings had been made public from the start on an accessible Web site?
What’s to be done? For the first time ever, we can answer that question confidently because Web technology makes true government transparency feasible.
As a general policy, I like this from Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer: “We’re going to be publishing government data and [operating on] a default assumption that information should be [available] to the people.”
Public data can be broadcast in near-real time, archived in searchable databases, mapped, graphed and summarized online—as it can and should be. Even better, these processes can be automated so they don’t place undue burdens on staff.
The initial investment for creating such systems is high. But can we afford to continue the operational paralysis that stymies government effectiveness?
In some ways, reforming government information systems is about saving government employees from ourselves. This is about public servants having the ability to act effectively on any given issue on any given day. Government agencies and civic organizations are paralyzed by a lack of situational awareness not occasionally, but continuously. Even government entities, the biggest consumers of government data, often can’t get their hands on much-needed information—sometimes from departments within their own jurisdiction.
Even with the best intentions, sometimes I struggle with fulfilling data requests because doing so is time consuming. One solution is for government to invest up-front to create systems that automatically publish data to the Web. For instance, as chief technical officer of the District of Columbia, Kundra implemented a system that allows everyone to subscribe to data feeds from D.C. City Hall. The street department’s routine data-entry systems trigger a steady stream of minutia, like the repair of each pothole, to broadcast automatically to a Web site, sort of like Twitter for city operations.
Efforts to improve transparency in Illinois, such as by reforming the Freedom of Information Act, focus on information requests by citizens. But these efforts could have far more impact by improving information systems. Sure, it would be great if citizens had an easier time filing out FOIA requests for specific documents, but much better if they could access those documents over the Web without filing a request. That’s transparency.
A digital-age FOIA would help, as would new transparency conditions on all recipients of federal funding. A requirement that the government post and index all public information online within a reasonable time period (with exemptions for privacy, confidentiality and public safety) would be radical and costly at first, but extremely beneficial.
How would reporters respond to true government transparency? In one sense, today’s news media thrive on the status quo because they are a primary conduit for information that’s otherwise difficult to acquire. Sifting through 5,700 zoning variances provides a public service, but if the public could download that data from the Web into a spreadsheet, with hyperlinks to scanned images of the original documents, would they still read the newspapers?
Thus, the boundary between what the press provides and what citizens seek out for themselves would shift but not disappear in a truly transparent environment. Investigative work and the shoe-leather coverage of everyday government operations will always fall outside the bounds of what citizens undertake for themselves.
Yes, this raises questions about who will pay for these services, and how much. But keeping our eyes on the bigger picture of the public good, removing the press from flows of information that are easily produced by government and easily consumed by citizens is a no-brainer. It’s the low-hanging fruit of meaningful government reform.
As Information Architect for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Greg Sanders serves as coordinator for the Chicago Area Housing Web site, the Illinois Data Exchange Affiliates and the Full Circle community mapping and planning project. Greg was previously IT Director for the Cleveland Housing Network and Senior Programmer-Analyst for Penske Logistics. He has managed Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grants in both Cleveland and Chicago. Greg holds a BA in political science from Oberlin College and a Masters degree in mass communications from Kent State.

Category: Essay

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