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Open Data Creates Accountability

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A series of recent blog posts raised questions on the value of open data and transparency. While thoughtful skepticism is constructive, there appears to be some significant confusion about the meaning of “open data," and about transparency and accountability. When activist developers like Aaron Swartz are concluding that “the case for opening up data to hold government accountable simply isn’t there,” or former government leaders like Beth Noveck are suggesting that there are “serious doubts” whether “open data” make government “more transparent or accountable,” then it’s time to engage. We should clarify something straight away -- this term “open data.” Open data wasn’t invented in 2009; open data isn’t born in a data portal. Construed most broadly, open data is people knowing things with technology. This information can be tabular, or not, structured, or not (though our preferences are clear.) When people ask whether open data can create government accountability, they’re essentially asking whether it’s helpful to know things about the government, and, strangely, coming up with uncertain answers. These answers are flawed, in part, because “open data” is being narrowly conceived of as the thing that fuels data contests and populates data portals, that is, the thing that sprang into vogue as Obama came into power. While Sunlight has been deeply involved in the last 3 years of “open data,” we’re also deeply grounded in the last 50. Every bit of open data we have now to be mashed up, evangelized, or opened exists, in part, through the accountability laws and norms that decades of work have created, about where citizens stand before their governments, and vice versa. If our first question is “does knowledge of government create accountability,” then the answer is clearly, definitively yes. Knowledge of the government creates accountability. As surely as ignorance and secrecy empower manipulation and abuse, information and knowledge empower self-determination. This is baked into Sunlight’s mission -- the idea that understanding the government changes how it works. The Brandeis quote that is the source of Sunlight’s name encapsulates that idea, and our work is intended to embody it. To suggest that open data can’t create accountability is to ignore the open data that helps create the accountability we already enjoy, and work to strengthen.

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