Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? (Everything I Learned Came From Romero Movies)


In honor of Sunlight Week I’ve posted an explanation on what I do and why I do it below. A little personal transparency from the Sunlight Foundation:

I’ve always loved zombie movies, although I’m almost exclusively particular to those made by George Romero. The slow-moving zombie representing the real imminence of death in all of our lives is a resonating image, whether you get the metaphor or not. One morning in 1999, I was awoken by a scene out of a Romero movie. The front and backyards of my parent’s Takoma, D.C. house were filled with members of the press moaning and creeping ever closer to the doors. For months, I had been greeted every morning and followed home every afternoon by these ravenous creatures who sought to devour the brains of every man, woman and child in America. They would appear on the television in the form of talking heads or politicians as I ate dinner and would call, incessantly, at all hours of the day (“Braaaaiiins,” they would mumble). Zombieland isn’t a movie, it’s the culture spawned by the political elites and the media that covers them. Looking back at that moment, while we waited for the police to arrive to clear the undead from our lawn, I can’t help but think that that brain-dead media swarm was ripe for a Romero metaphor–which I’m sure you can figure out on your own. I couldn’t exactly pick up a sawed-off shotgun to kill these rotting corpses, but there turned out to be other ways of helping out.

Wanting to reorient Washington away from it’s zombified state–and the desperate need for a job–led me to the Sunlight Foundation. In 2006, I was brought onto this crazy ride by Sunlight’s Executive Director Ellen Miller. Over the last four years I’ve cut out a role doing two important things to try and keep the zombies off of our lawns in the days ahead: (1) advocate for more information and data be released to the public and (2) use that information and data to report on and “data-jam” politicians and the media. I’ll try to explain both of these things and why they matter below (be forewarned, inexplicable references to the 18th century may occur).

Let’s start with number (1): Advocating for transparency

The truth of the matter is that the proper way to dispose of the carrion in Washington isn’t to necessarily send new bodies in, but to expand the voice of those coming from without. And this isn’t solely about amplification. Higher decibel levels seem to feed the zombie virus. What is important is creating better informed voices, not louder ones. Doing that requires connecting people who want information about their government to the information they seek. The best way to change Washington is to open it up to the people. This doesn’t mean a direct democracy, but an informed democratic polity where people have the same access to information as their representatives. What I’m talking about, and why I work here, is to promote and create egalitarian access to information.

The ideal of an informed society has a long and important history in the United States and it is what animates the transparency movement. In 1792, Congress made one of the first legislative moves to open information flows to the public by passing the Post Office Act of 1792. The bill provided federal subsidies through reduced charges for newspapers to travel through the postal service. Senator Elbridge Gerry argued, “However firmly liberty may be established in any country, it cannot long subsist if the channels of information be stopped.” And since then, there has been a long strand of connected efforts, many of them political, to open government to the people and disclose government information and information about government operations to the public. These efforts have continued to shape American society as they did in early days of the Republic.

In his book The Creation of the Media, Paul Starr describes how society changed as more people experienced the liberty to express themselves, “Republican ideology held up a new standard of good conduct: The responsible citizen was informed and kept up with the times. Self-government, in other words, generated greater demand for information, particularly for news and newspapers. … [B]y legitimating the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves, the Revolution dignified their right to speak up—literally, without self-consciously bending and averting their eyes while addressing people of higher status.” As Starr paraphrases James Madison, “liberty granted power in America.” That was power to the middle and lower classes who now, due to the liberty granted them, could voice their opinions on anything, including deriding the upper classes. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution Gordon Wood writes, “In contrast to pre-revolutionary America, the society of the early Republic had thousands upon thousands of obscure ordinary people participating in the creation of this public opinion.” Opinions crave for information.

That’s what animates me to advocate for more transparency in government. Providing people with the kind of data necessary to information opinions. You don’t want a bunch of opinions without any information. To self-govern you’re going to need informed opinions based on factual data and information. And often times not just factual information, but relevant and useful information. That’s why data quality and the type of information we ask for is so important. It also requires that a lot of data and information be properly placed into context.

Which brings us to number (2): Data-jamming

Data-jamming often involves taking information about politicians and putting it in context. More specifically I described it in a previous post as such, “[Data-jamming] helps to disrupt the pre-packaged image that politicians want to transmit to the audience, which is mega-phoned through the television media. In effect, “data-jamming” aims to make the system transparent by putting it into context. This is a different type of transparency than what we tend to advocate for regularly. But it is ultimately the type of transparency that is enabled by efforts to make the information in and about government more open, available and transparent. Transparency begets transparency.”

Let me try to explain this more clearly. Think of a politician not as an individual actor, but as an entity. This entity has many properties that make up the public image projected into your television screens, onto the printed page and through the Internet tubes: campaign contributors, in-state interests, staffers, former staffers turned lobbyists, personal finances, family connections and so on. This entity also has a public record of statements, op-eds, videos, policies and more. Data-jamming aims to take these data points to reveal the sum of the entity’s parts to the public to help explain what appears to be an individual actor. This requires the disclosure of data and information and thus relies on transparency to make the political entity transparent. Data-jamming works through writing, reporting, infographics, videos, remixes and visualizations.

It’s what David Cross meant when he joked about, “These —-ing guys out there on their computers compiling cold, hard, irrefutable facts; —- those —holes!”

This helps to provide people with a window into the real influences and points of interest that surround politicians while also placing the data and information into context. Furthermore, this helps to explain why we need the data and information to be transparent. Thus the data-jamming exercise is recursive.

So, what have we learned here? It’s time to kill some zombies.

Happy Sunshine Week!