Dear Santa, open your data

Santa Letter

We at the Sunlight Foundation believe in transparency and accountability for our leaders. That’s why this holiday season, the presents under the tree aren’t the only things that we’re eagerly anticipating being opened.

The time has come for Santa Claus to open his data.

Though Santa Claus’s exact and complete public function is unknown, his close working relationship with government agencies such as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the United States Post Office (USPS) and the White House suggest that he and his workshop may be government contractors, or may act as a quasi-governmental agency.

In fact, it has been reported that Santa Claus himself is not merely a government contractor, but an elected government official in the North Pole.

Whatever his legal relationship to the state, Santa conducts a global mass surveillance program — presumably with governmental approval — to serve the vital public function of evaluating the world’s children as either naughty or nice and rewarding them accordingly with gifts. This program no doubt produces a trove of data, including gift production data, gift distribution data and the famous naughty or nice list.

It’s clear that the decisions Santa Claus makes on behalf of the public have a tremendous impact all over the globe. Sunlight has long advocated that wherever information is collected from or on behalf of the public using the government’s power, the public should retain presumptive access to that information. That’s why this holiday, instead of a Secret Santa, we need an OPEN Santa.

So Santa, if you are reading, here is Sunlight’s Christmas list (of demands):

1. Open the naughty or nice list (in machine-readable, open format)

The naughty and nice list is Santa’s critical tool for data-driven decision making, but when the data is closed, there can be very little oversight to ensure the fairness of this process. Who is on which list and why? These are important questions and the public deserves answers. Therefore, Sunlight demands that this massive dataset be released in machine-readable format, along with the evaluation criteria used.

Now, the naughty or nice list surely contains personally identifiable information of individuals who are not government officials or vendors. However, this is no excuse for not releasing the dataset. We recommend that Santa put in place proper safeguards to protect such sensitive information by aggregating the individual-level data to the census block level, thereby providing some degree of public information and value.

Beyond direct public oversight of the evaluation process, the research potential of the naughty or nice list is immense. Santa can and should grant access to the individual-level data for academic or nonprofit researchers that have agreed to protect sensitive information by not releasing it except in aggregate. Sunlight would love to conduct a rigorous comparative analysis of naughty or nice governments to test our hypothesis that transparent governments are nicer.

2. Public, comprehensive list of all gift holdings

Billions of children request gifts from Santa every year, but to be able to request the gifts that are right for them, they first need to know which gifts are available. This is why Santa should conduct a comprehensive inventory of all gifts and make that list publicly available for comment. Allowing for this kind of feedback will not only empower the public, but will improve Santa’s service delivery in the process (because surely with feedback enabled on gifts, duds like “matching holiday sweaters for me and my sister” will be far less frequent).

3. Provide GTFS feed for your sleigh route

Santa’s arrival time and sleigh route is highly sought after information for many members of the public. Sharing sleigh schematics, sleigh technical data, and transit data with large institutional partners like NORAD and Google is a good start, but to be truly open the data itself must be open to everyone.

Luckily the General Transit Feed Specification, a civic data standard originally developed by Google and Portland TriMet, defines a common format for transportation schedules and associated geographic information and can allow developers to write applications that consume that data in an interoperable way. Sunlight asks that Santa release his transit data in GTFS or GTFS-realtime format so that anyone can build useful transit applications for his Christmas Eve journey.

4. Disclose your budget and funders

Though Santa manufactures billions of dollars of goods at his workshop, he runs perhaps the largest distribution network in the world, and utilizes advanced, and presumably expensive technology to do so. Very little is known about his budget and sources of revenue. How much does all this cost? Just who is funding the operation and what are these funders getting in return? The public’s ability to understand how leaders such as Santa Claus are spending money is one of the best ways to ensure accountability for that spending. Public access to accurate, timely and complete financial data is key to achieving that reality.

Are Santa’s biggest donors more likely to end up on the “nice” list? Do they receive more gifts? What is Santa’s compensation and does it reflect his workload and performance? Although we can estimate, these are the kinds of questions that can only be answered with greater transparency and open data — perhaps this is why a public survey of how much Santa should be compensated returned a range from 0 to $1.8 billion per year.

5. We’d like a pony and a racecar and Senate e-filing of campaign reports

We’ve been really good this year, and we think we deserve it. We will of course disclose any donations to Sunlight (from Santa or otherwise) on our website.