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National Day of Civic Hacking 2013

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This past weekend, over 11,000 individuals connected under the helm of the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) -- a series of local #HackForChange hackathons, unconferences, and meeting of the minds that engaged local communities with open data, code, and tech.

From what we can tell, the NDoCH events were magnetic, drawing together participation from local (and traveling) developers, government officials (including a few mayors!), community leaders, and even 21 federal agencies. The vibe of this national organization not only encouraged a sort of: "If you can't hack with the city you reside in, hack with the one you're physically located in," but also further encouraged cross-pollination of civic applications from community to community (For more highlights from the national scene, check out this Storify feed.) Although Sunlight wasn’t able to attend every one of the 95 events held this past weekend, the events we did attend taught us quite a bit. Below, we’ve rounded up our reflections, recaps, and geeky highlights from the festivities in Baltimore, DC, Montgomery County, North Carolina, and Western Massachusetts.

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How Unique is the New U.S. Open Data Policy?

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The White House’s new Executive Order may be significantly different than the open data policies that have come before it on the federal level, but where does it stand in a global -- and local -- context? Many folks have already jumped at the chance to compare this new US executive order and the new policies that accompany it to a similar public letter issued by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, but little attention has been paid to one of the new policy’s most substantial provisions: the creation of a public listing of agency data based on an internal audits of information holdings. As administrative as this provision might sound, the creation of this listing (and the accompanying scoping of what information isn’t yet public, but could be released) is part of the next evolution of open data policies (and something Sunlight has long called for as a best practice). So does this policy put the U.S. on the leading edge?

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TransparencyCamp 2013: Wrapping Up the Best Year Yet

Every year at about this time -- just days after our hallmark community event, TransaprencyCamp -- we kick up our heels, shake our heads, and think, “That was our best event yet.” But this year, we really mean it. TransparencyCamp 2013 was different from its predecessors. Not only was it our largest TCamp to-date -- with a chart-topping 500 participants from over 25 countries and 33 states* -- but it was also our strongest. More than a reunion of old friends fighting the same fight, this TransparencyCamp was a veritable democratic laboratory, with scientists from different backgrounds, countries and creeds coming together to share their experiments, find collaborators, and bring new ideas back home for testing and tweaking. We’ll have some more reflections and behind the scenes views in the days ahead, but first, we wanted to share with you a closer at the weekend.

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Calling for Common Sense (and Bulk Data) in California

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  Request denied. That’s the response MapLight, California Common Cause, and 10 other media, transparency, and reform organizations (including Sunlight) received last Wednesday to a letter submitted to the office of California’s Secretary of State. The letter made a simple request of Secretary Debra Bowen’s office: Add the option of downloading bulk data from California’s campaign finance and lobbying database (Cal-Access) by posting this information in one, single, downloadable file on this public website, and keep this information up-to-date. Not quite a hamfisted transparency reform, but one that’s proved to be quite revealing about online disclosure in the Golden State. Currently there are only two ways to access the information contained on Cal-Access. The first is to slowly surf through the portal’s online interface, choosing limiting, specific sub-fields of information types (i.e Listing by Certified Election Candidates; Incumbents; etc), and relying on the system to generate specific reports that do not allow users to easily compare (or download) information. The second way is via CD-ROM. Yes, to gain “open” access to structured, bulk data from the state of California about campaign finance and lobbying information, you need to submit a request and pay $5 and wait for the state to send you a CD-ROM. There are a lot of problems evident in this scenario, not the least of which is the delay (up to a month!) caused by needing to translate information that already exists in an electronic format into a “physical” one (the CD-ROM). This delay not only costs the state in terms of staff time and resources, but also has a huge cost to the citizens of California. Californians have a right to unfettered access to public information -- like lobbying and campaign finance reports -- which provide vital knowledge and data about how the state government operates and who is trying to influence that power. Five dollars -- or fifty -- is too high a cost to pay for this access.

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Unconference 101: A Quick Guide to TCamp and Beyond

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With TransparencyCamp less than three weeks away, it’s time to get serious about what it means to attend an unconference. Unconferences are events run by participants. Attendees set the agenda for what will be discussed, lead the sessions and workshops that fill the schedule, and create an environment of innovation and productive discussion. It can be a bit hard to visualize how this all plays out before you’ve actually attended an open format event like this, so, to make things easier, we’ve pulled together some resources to help you get the most out of your TransparencyCamp experience -- or any other open format event you attend.

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A Look at Utah’s Future in Open Data

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Open data policies can come in different shapes, sizes, and strengths. The most common and idealized form aims to mandate or direct energy toward open data specifically (reflected in the recent wave of municipal referendums). Another takes the focus off of open data, and instead tucks related provisions into policies for other issue areas (a neat example is this (now tabled) Viriginia education bill, introduced in January). The open data legislation passed yesterday by Utah reflects a third form: the mandated plan. We’ve seen this model before, most recently in Montgomery County, MD. In essence, this sort of legislation directs a particular agency (or, in Utah’s case, overhauls a snoozing Transparency Advisory Board) to study and make recommendations for online, best practice data disclosure. Although it’s easy to think of these policies as a punt, this sort of reallocation of attention, time, and expertise can actually be a move to stabilize and ensure thoughtful implementation and real enforcement of an open data agenda -- so long as it’s executed well, actually moves from planning to action, and operates start to finish within the public’s eye. Utah’s Board will be one to watch, with a unique combination of state agency actors, legislators, archivists, technologists, county and municipal reps, and two members of the public. It’s a team that hints at greater ambitions for Utah’s approach to future online publication of data, one that seems to be looking, at least tentatively, outside the State House and towards Utah’s local governments. But we won’t know for sure until the board turns around its first series of recommendations, due by November 30, 2013.

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Greetings from #OpenData Land

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Publishing open data has many practical and normative implications which can be noted and explored in the text of the open data policy. We've rounded up some of the interesting reasons policymakers in cities across the country have pursued these policies. Check them out in our #opendata policy postcards.

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