Working on our short documentary series called OpenGov Champions I get to go and hang out with some extremely smart, creative and inspiring people. The Champions are ordinary citizens who do some extraordinary work to open up their local government data in big or small ways, not because someone asked them to, but because they are either fed up with not having access to information they need or simply because want their communities to flourish. To me, this is far more interesting as a storyteller and documentary filmmaker than interviewing seasoned politicians, spokespeople or experts. These are the kind of stories that are the fodder of classic storytelling and moviemaking. They are real life stories of the quintessential American heroes: Ones who defeat the odds by taking the matters into their own hands and create real change by strong will, passion and hard work.
Working on these mini documentaries is the favorite part of my job. The Champions open up their homes to me and I get to spend a few hours interviewing and getting to know them, and then a week or so putting the video together. As I watch the raw footage over and over again, looking for core of the story, I feel like I really get to know them quite well. And I always have a hard time with the inevitable elimination of footage, (called “killing your darlings” in editor talk.) They always say so many interesting things with insight, humor and wisdom that I would love everyone to hear. Yet I need to cut a lot out to get to the heart of the story and tell it in about three minutes.
I was first a little nervous calling Laura Amico to talk about doing a video about her. I had heard about Homicide Watch DC, and the imagery it had sprung in my mind was of some hardened-by-life, don’t-mess-with-me reporter straight from a film noir movie. You’d have to be to handle all that horror and heartbreak associated with homicide reporting, right? But I was relieved to find that she was none of that. To the contrary. When my coworker Kevin and I went to interview Laura and her husband Chris, who also works on the site, their warm and tranquil apartment smelled of something delicious cooking. They were a delight to work with. We stayed for more than three hours and yet they gracefully kept talking to us despite it getting late and their dinner delayed. In the course of the interview she explained that even though it is hard work sometimes, what makes it worth it is that they have been able to create this place where families and friends, teachers and co workers of victims — and suspects for that matter — can find information they need and support each other through the tough times. I find it remarkable that she can keep on doing this work without becoming the toughened reporter I imagined her to be in the process.
The story of Homicide Watch shows how open data and government transparency touch upon a wide variety of issues and affect so many different groups of people. Be it environmental, political, civil rights related, social, or any other small or big cause, it will likely at some point benefit from open and easy access to government data. In Laura’s case, it is violent crime data from the courts and police departments in DC.
I am not really a wonk. But I do care about transparency and openness in our government. Talking to the OpenGov Champions to me speaks more about the OpenGov movement than the more technological or political chatter you hear so much here in D.C. What I, and many others like me need in order to “get it” is a story, a human face that can connect the dots for us and show us what others do and that we can do that too. And I believe most of us need inspiration from others from time to time. Meeting the people who participate in the OpenGov movement in their own ways makes it real to me and makes me feel I’m part of a larger community.
It gives me hope to see that I don’t have to run for office or know the secret handshake in order to make change. Ordinary people coming together are what it takes — sharing stories like this one and using them to build support for real change — for transparency and openness in all our communities. That’s why we started this series, and I hope you all can gather around this modern version of the campfire and enjoy the story.