A global perspective on TransparencyCamp 2014

International TCampers enjoying a trip to the U.S. Capitol.

The record-breaking success of TCamp14 extended beyond U.S. borders. With over 50 participants from more than 29 countries at this year’s TCamp, we are truly becoming a global community.

Although the dust has finally settled, we still need to devote some attention to the growing international reach of our favorite unconference before we call TCamp14 a wrap.

For the past three years, Sunlight had the opportunity to bring several open government scholars from across the globe together to address common challenges around opening government. This year we sorted through more than 300 impressive applications to find 19 scholars to bring to Washington D.C.

Who are these opengov superstars, exactly? They come from varying backgrounds (every continent was represented) and a wide range of skill sets. An overarching desire to make government more accountable transcends all of their interests.

Some are civic hackers, such as David Cabo, director of Civio, an organization that mapped the links of major power players in Spain (with some help from Sunlight). Others are journalists, like Justin Arenstein from the African Media Initiative in South Africa. Anne-Christine Wegener has roots in policy, having spent five years working on accountability in national security and defense accountability at Transparency International and currently writing a book on the topic. Mor Rubinstein could be called a jack-of-all-trades: She has worked as a community manager at the Public Knowledge Workshop and now she spends her days analyzing data at the Oxford Internet Institute. And these advocates represent only a few of our accomplished international TCampers.

Suffice to say, these scholars came, they TCamp’d and they conquered.

Jumping into TCamp sessions

These first time attendees wasted no time getting acquainted with the unconference setting and leapt right into proposing sessions alongside their U.S. counterparts. This year’s schedule was packed with international sessions, hosted by our scholars and veteran international attendees.

TCamp sessions provide an opportunity for participants to share their work, gain feedback on and crowdsource for ideas on next steps. For instance, Mathias Huter — who managed the creation of tendermonitor.ge, a platform that aggregates government contracts in Georgia — hosted a session on how to open procurement data. Ivan Ninenko showcased declarator.org, TI-Russia’s database of national officials’ assets and led a brainstorm on how we might expand this project to a global scale. A panel of freedom of information experts — including Henare Degan of the OpenAustralia Foundation, David Cabo of Civio and Michael Morisy of MuckRock — brainstormed different ways to “fix” FOI, with varying regulations across different jurisdictions.

Taking on our biggest challenges

Outside of the main event, Sunlight also organized two days of additional workshops for our international TCamp attendees to address the common struggles faced throughout the global community in increasing transparency on a national level. As advocates working to open up our governments, we are big believers of open data as an important means to better accountability. But we also recognize that openness by itself doesn’t lead to change: Open data is a tool, not an end in itself. Therefore, during these additional sessions around TCamp we focused on how our intermediary goals of opening up government data can help us meet our ultimate goal of real accountability, and how open government activists can confront power through public information.


Here’s an overview of the major conclusions from our workshops:

Influence industry — exposing money in politics: The lack of reliable political finance data is often a barrier to combating corruption. In countries where governments don’t release a lot of data or what is released isn’t credible, sometimes open government advocates have to get creative. There may be other sources of data that can be scraped. Kamil Gregor of kohovolit.eu used data from a national golf association in the Czech Republic to see records of when public officials were meeting with association members. Ciudadano Inteligente, a civil society organization (CSO) based in Chile, cross-references public asset disclosures with company data to find member of parliaments’ conflicts of interest. Crowdsourcing can also be a powerful tool in obtaining influence data. Civio called upon citizens to upload photos of government officials to map suspiciously close relationships between power players within and outside the government. Trade associations, the media, corporations — and even citizens — might be keeping records that can be used to trace influence figures. Therefore, the accessibility of data on private entities is also crucial in painting a more complete picture of what major policy discussions might be happening behind closed doors.

Why influence in government is important can seem obscure to the general public and reaching this audience is difficult. However, having the support of the general public can greatly amplify the message to government officials and affect change. By strategically mobilizing relationships with the media, we can broaden our message’s reach and advocacy efforts. It’s more difficult for legislators to ignore a call for political finance disclosure after a scandal in the media prompts citizens and partner CSOs to support the cause. During the session we also discussed the potential next steps for the Money, Politics and Transparency Project, a new initiative recently launched by Sunlight, Global Integrity and the Electoral Integrity Project to establish a global network around political finance to help combat corruption.

Opening procurement data: Regardless of your interest in politics, the effects of public procurement permeates into the lives of all citizens. Transparency in government contracting can not only increase efficiency but allows CSOs to better monitor for potential corruption in procurement. Mathias Huter’s work at TI-Georgia provides a prime example of how transparency in the contracting system can level the playing field and help promote accountability. Tendermonitor.ge aggregates contracts from Georgia’s e-procurement platform (claimed to be one of the most transparent national platforms in the world). The openness of this data has jumpstarted advocacy efforts and, according to the Georgian government, has helped them save money. Through case studies like this, we can show policymakers the mutual benefits that opening contracts can have in increasing efficient public spending and accountability.

An image from Open Duka, a free database of info on Kenyan entities. (Click for larger view)

Opening up contracts and cross-referencing it with other data sets such as company ownership records, party campaign contributions or asset declarations of public officials can help the media and watchdog groups identify possible corruption cases in an effort to push for more integrity in public spending. Open Duka, created by the Open Institute in Kenya, connects procurement data with information on companies’ interactions with government entities, mapping suspicious relationships with data visualizations. It’s feasible to make these connections by pushing for open data in the procurement process, and the opportunity to expose corruption can excite a broader range of stakeholders.

Increasing legislative transparency: An accountable government must be responsive: Its policies should align to the needs of its citizens. We’ve found that the legislative branch is generally the most open with information and developing collaborative relationships with government officials is an effective approach to opening up data. During the workshop, we also discussed some of the tools that build on legislative information. Kohovolit.eu in the Czech Republic for instance publishes an election calculator that lets voters compare their views to potential parties before an election — powered by parliamentary voting data. More than one million voters used the election calculator in the 2013 presidential election.

There are several groups working on parliamentary transparency in the global sphere and many opportunities to share tools and best practices in forums outside of TCamp or other open government gatherings. OpeningParliament and Poplus are groups that demonstrate the power of engagement across a cohesive legislative transparency community. We agreed that cross-posting content is the first step in bridging the gaps between these two community.


Inspiring action

Throughout our discussions at the international portion of TCamp and during the larger event, it became increasingly clear that our impact could be magnified by more collaboration on projects. In spite of national boundaries, the obstacles our community faces are often times similar.

The potential for skill sharing between regional partnerships with common issues is huge. After realizing their common interests at TCamp, a coalition between our tech and journalist delegates from Africa formed as they recognized how each could benefit from other’s expertise. The African Media Initiative has already solidified Odekro, a PMO in Ghana, as an official affiliate in their Code for Africa project.

We can also leverage the power of our larger community to tackle common challenges, such as obtaining data. We talked about launching an international campaign calling upon governments to release parliamentary data in an open API format. Many of us have spent countless hours trying to get usable data, either by working directly with legislatures or by scraping government websites. Maybe by creating an international push around the topic, we can cut out all of the time and money spent opening legislative data ourselves.

A desire to increase global collaboration poses a greater need to enhance communication. Some of our scholars are working to create a platform that allows members of the community to share what they’re working on in a central repository, making it easier to share success stories (and lessons learned from failures) or code. We hope to cultivate these projects and many of the others that began here.

TCamp14 may be a wrap, but it’s not the end for the ideas that have sprouted here. As these projects grow and blossom, we will continue fostering co-working in our community through our Sunlight network and Money, Politics and Transparency Project: Let’s bring more global projects to life.