Today is One Web Day, its third annual celebration. The event, an “Earth Day for the Internet,” is the brainchild of Susan Crawford, who wanted to make sure we don’t take this most amazing and transformative new medium for granted. I’m honored to be part of Washington’s celebration of OneWebDay and to know that we are just one small part of a celebration that’s happening all around the globe.
The theme of this year’s OneWebDay is online participation in democracy, which is very exciting to us. We founded Sunlight with the non-partisan mission of using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens. The Web is enabling greater openness and transparency in the way government functions, which will strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected officials and to foster public trust in Congress. Sunlight’s work empowers citizens to be their own congressional watchdogs surely could not exist without the Internet. And we are pretty awestruck ourselves as the potential we see ahead of us.
The Web is opening new channels of communication, new ways of participating in governance and oversight. Internet technologies are breaking down barriers, and empowering all of us to make our voice heard, engage in conversations, build new communities, connect with friends and strengthen our bonds. In this new online world, everyone can be a publisher, an activist, an organizer. No longer are we isolated, passive consumers of political information. Instead, we are active players who blog, tweet, yammer and, post YouTube videos that help shape public opinion and discourse.
Our government stands to gain from all of the ways that new communications technology empowers the participants in our democracy. First, public scrutiny, once the exclusive domain of the press, is being reinforced by cadres of interested citizens demanding digital access to governmental proceedings and data, and then offering analysis and policy expertise. “An army of Davids” is how consummate blogger Glenn Reynolds termed this phenomenon. Second, new tools also hold the promise of efficient, effective government, better able to manage information, analyze it, and respond to it. Finally, a government open to a networked citizenry creates opportunities for increased civic engagement, offsetting the privileged influence and access accorded to special interests.
At Sunlight, we are trying to extend the reach of the Web into government, starting by shedding more light on Congress. We are ‘open sourcing’ government data so that it can be reused by citizens in ways that we couldn’t have imagined before. We have liberated gigabytes of important political data from basements, paper, pdfs, and other non-searchable and non-mashable formats. We have assembled and funded an array of Web-based databases and tools about members of Congress, their staff, legislation, federal spending and lobbyists. Bloggers, journalists and citizens use these tools every day to oversee the work of our elected officials and enforce accountability.
Government itself has been slow to adapt itself to this new digital information age, but the networked world hasn’t waited. Technologists, hobbyists, bloggers, NGOs around the world, and concerned citizens have leveraged the power of the Web to free government information from basements or from unwieldy web sites, to lobby government to make more information available online, to scrutinize government data and ask hard questions or formulate alternative policies, and to act as watchdogs on everything from congressional earmarks to the administration’s firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. The next administration, working with Congress, can ensure the federal government takes the necessary steps to become as responsive, open and effective as increasingly networked Americans expect it to be.
We invite citizens to join in our efforts to help with this work through a variety of ways. Sunlight has launched numerous initiatives in which thousands of citizens have participated – one example is PublicMarkup.org where citizens helped to draft a bill on government transparency, or the Open House Project – a collaborative online effort. (This week we are launching the Open Senate Project). Another popular effort is Capitol Words that identifies the most frequently spoken word of the day on Capitol Hill. Think Congresspedia, and OpenCongress if you really want to know what’s happening on Capitol Hill.