TransparencyCamp has come and gone, but the ideas that sprouted at TCamp are just beginning to come to life.
Steve Spiker from OpenOakland shared his insight about the transparency movement in the TCamp wrap up video below, “We’re saying things need to be different in our country and that’s only going to happen if you care enough to persist on it.”
The transparency community understands that progress starts at TCamp but it doesn’t end when you go home.
Here’s an appeal for our readers: please help Sunlight spread the news of the great work civic hackers do as far and wide as possible by voting for our storytelling video in the Looking@Democracy contest organized by the Illinois Humanities Council with support from the MacArthur Foundation. (Voting ends May 16.)
We couldn’t wait to tell this (previously) untold story through a short video to demonstrate how the nascent movement of civic hackers are creating apps and tools using open government data to make their communities better. These men and women are equipped with laptops, open data and creative ideas to positively reconstruct the way we relate with government.
While it’s not at the volume of the Fall, our television screens are continuing to experience a case of “political ad fever.” From commercials about gun laws and tax rates to ads about alleged animal cruelty, issue groups took to the airwaves this winter. We reviewed the ad files in Political Ad Sleuth for the first three months of 2013 and mapped the trends among issue group advertisers in the nation’s top 50 media markets.
Broadcast TV stations in 32 media markets aired issue ads from at least 55 advertisers. The political ads were split pretty evenly between a local or national scope, covering 27 different topics. Three markets had a diverse selection of advertisers:
Washington, DC — 14 issue groups bought airtime, including four on the topic of gun control, three urging the Senate not to appoint Chuck Hagel and one supporting the U.S. postal service.
Milwaukee — 7, with issue ads around candidates for the city’s judge circuit race being the majority of the ones we found.
Los Angeles — 6, mostly centered on candidates in the LA mayoral race.
City hall is a living metaphor for the way citizens and government exchange information. People visit their city hall to do everything from paying bills and signing marriage licenses to participating in city council meetings and registering businesses. Regardless of the political structure a municipal government might have or whether that government is a city, town, borough, or something else, the local seat of government is itself a hub of information. Understanding what goes on there is key to seeing how a municipality structures its data and shares information with the public -- and hints at what the future of these exchanges will look like as these governments incorporate more technology into their daily operations and services.
The city hall of Takoma Park, Maryland, is one particularly active hub of citizen and government exchange. Here, city hall houses not only the city manager, city council meeting rooms, and administrative units of the local government, but also the police department, computer labs, and various public recreational facilities and classes. (Yoga, anyone?) Although some of these offline operations and data holdings are in the process of transitioning online (especially when it comes to making public meetings more accessible), Takoma Park is a picture of a local government at the crossroads between the old vision of open government -- with its door literally open -- and the new, which calls for open data, open processes, and digital services in real time.
Suzanne Ludlow, Takoma Park’s city manager sums it up in the video below: “How do you take a town that’s doing well, but then do the next step?”
As we continue our work on local open data, we wonder: How do you interact with your local government? Let us know by sharing a picture of your city hall on Twitter with the hashtag #opencity!
One of those tools is baltimorevacants.org, a dynamic map that lets you search and see more than 30,000 vacant houses and vacant lots in Baltimore. To capture on video the source of that data, we drove around Baltimore filming abandoned houses, streets and even entire blocks that are just left to decay, attracting crime and rats.
Like Shea says in the video, it’s impactful to see 30,000 vacant houses or lots mapped out over the city. But it is even more powerful to see the actual places. I’m still haunted by the sight of all those vacant, rotting houses with boarded up windows and doors we saw all over Baltimore. As a visual storyteller, I could imagine how each one of these houses has a story to tell. Maybe a factory closed, people lost their jobs, packed up and moved, and after enough of their neighbors had left, the ones left behind could not bear to live on an empty street and finally they all went.
Looking at Shea’s work, I realized that data can be used tell a story too, one from real life that literally “connects the dots” and paints with broader strokes to get the full picture. That’s why Shea loves hacking on the open data the City of Baltimore started releasing in 2011: there is always a real life connection to the work he is doing and he can see it all around him.
Another one is an app called Spot Agent that uses parking citation data to warn you if a meter maid might be close by. Then there’s one that uses the city’s 311 data to show the most common problems occurring in any Baltimore neighborhood based on words that appear the most in the service requests, such as “trash,” “rat,” “illegal” or “light.”
He does a lot of this work with the help of other developers and interested citizens, connected through hackathons and other events. There is a vibrant community for this sort of work in Baltimore such that when the city started releasing its data sets through the Open Baltimore portal there already was an active bunch of people ready to go and put it to use. The city has been pleased with that, as these civic hackers can build something for fun and for free in a weekend that would take them weeks, maybe even months to complete and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Shea has been tag-teaming with the city directly, using the data it released and giving the city advice on how the data could be improved upon, mainly that it should be updated in real time instead of doing a one-time dump.
Why does Shea Frederick spend so much of his own time sorting out this data into meaningful, usable formats when he might as well be competing in a cyclocross race somewhere? Well, for one, he loves what he does. And second, he has grown to love Baltimore and wants to give back by giving others tools that can help them connect with what’s happening around the city. This is OpenGov Championship at work: taking data that’s available and putting it to use, and working together with the local government to make it even better.
The administration is even holding on to much older opinions. 39% of OLC opinions issued between 1998 and 2012 are still being withheld from online publication, accounting for 201 of the 509 opinions issued during that time, our August 2012 analysis found.
Secret law and good governance do not mix. While we recognize that there occasionally may be reasons that countenance against their full release, we recommend the following:
The Office of Legal Counsel should refresh its website to indicate how many memos are issued each year. It should adopt the default of releasing all memos, not just the ones it deems “significant” (as such a distinction invites abuse and mistrust), and should do so prospectively and retrospectively.
Where OLC cannot release an opinion in its entirety, it should release versions that are redacted as lightly as possible.
At a minimum, the titles of opinions should be released, and if even that raises insurmountable issues, descriptions of memos should be available in their stead.
Finally, the administration should consider bringing in a trusted reviewer from outside the executive branch who can credibly (and publicly) make recommendations about the release of additional opinions.
What a year 2012 has been! We faced an onslaught of unprecedented amounts of political spending. In this post-Citizens United landscape, it was even harder to connect the dots and know who was paying for the campaigns and what they'll get in return. Dark money rained down, super PACs sprouted like mushrooms and negativity reigned all while our Congress experienced one of its least productive years, stalling meaningful reforms like the DISCLOSE Act.
But, all was not dark. During 2012, the beginnings of something very positive started to take root as the movement for online open government grew on a significant scale. This year, we launched a major global initiative, collaborating with transparency organizations to define best practices and norms for open government around the world. We joined more than 100 organizations in a Declaration on Parliamentary Openness to improve openness, transparency and citizen participation in the legislative process on an international scale.
Ad Hawk, our "Shazam for Political Ads" that earned the very cool rating of “Essential iPhone App of 2012” by Gizmodo.
Scout, which alerts you on actions that federal regulators, Congress or your state legislature take on a specific bill or issue you care about.
2013 already promises to be an exciting year with new initiatives that will give you more opportunities to join us in shining sunlight on politics and government. If you want to be kept in the loop about these new developments -- and help us continue our nonpartisan research and tech development -- please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to the Sunlight Foundation today.
We won't be able to do it without you, so please stand with us to keep politics and our government transparent and accountable.
On Monday morning, Sunlight Reporting Group Managing Editor Kathy Kiely was a guest on C-SPAN's Washington Journal. Her conversation with host John McArdle, and subsequent viewer questions, offers a great primer on the impact of money in politics this election year. From mega donors and super PACs to campaign spending and disclosure rules, it's a great video to check out.