The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.
At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.
Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public - and why it's so critical that we succeed in our mission.
OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it's useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, "Would what I'm saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?"
After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way...
An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.
Here's what we mean.
1) Transparency and Accountability
Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what's (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.
Transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens' ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin...
In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let's create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.
2) Better Government Service
Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen's life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.
Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what's working and what's not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we'll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.
Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.
3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity
Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.
The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O'Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.
What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.
When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I'd put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it's data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.
The only tricky part is that government doesn't inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won't become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own - and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.
We're going to have to demand it of them. And that's what we're doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you'll join us.