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A Sunshine Week Call for Greater Transparency

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As part of Sunshine week, I had the opportunity to testify at a  House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to share a few of Sunlight's ideas about making the executive branch more transparent. Video and text of my opening statement are below. It almost goes without saying that we're very interested in the transparency bills the Oversight Committee will be marking up this Wednesday.  

Text of Opening Statement

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Sunlight’s Priorities for the Next Administration

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Regardless of who wins the presidential election, the next administration will have enormous power to say how open our government will be. We have organized our priorities for the next administration below, to share where we think our work on executive branch issues will be focused, in advance of the election results. From money in politics to open data, spending, and freedom of information, we'll be working to open up the Executive Branch. We'd love to hear any suggestions you might have for Sunlight's Executive Branch work, please leave additional ideas in the comments below. (We'll also be sharing other recommendations soon, including a legislative agenda for the 113th Congress, and a suite of reform proposals for the House and Senate rules packages.) Sunlight Reform Agenda for the Next Administration:

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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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Defining “High Value Data” Is Hard. So Let’s Not Do It.

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on a Sunshine Week panel moderated by Patrice McDermott, along with CRP's Sheila Krumholz, Pro Publica's Jennifer LaFleur and Todd Park of HHS. We touched on a lot of different topics, including one that by now is probably familiar to anyone who's followed the progress of the Open Government Directive: frustration with the vagueness of the term "high value datasets." Various organizations--Sunlight included--have criticized the administration for releasing "high value" datasets that seem to actually be of questionable usefulness.

Jennifer coined a formulation of what she considers to be a high value dataset, and it attracted some support on the panel:

Information on anything that's inspected, spent, enforced, or licensed. That's what I want, and that's what the public wants.

I don't think this is a bad formulation. But while I'm not anxious to tie myself into knots of relativism, we should keep in mind the degree to which "high value" is in the eye of the beholder. It's clear how Jennifer's criteria map to the needs of journalists like those at Pro Publica. But if you consider the needs of someone working with weather data, or someone constructing a GIS application--two uses of government data that have spawned thriving industries, and generated a lot of wealth--it's obvious that the definition isn't complete. To use a more melodramatic example, if World War III broke out tomorrow, a KML inventory of fallout shelters could quickly go from being an anachronism to a vital asset.

The point isn't that Jennifer's definition is bad, but rather that any definition is going to be incomplete. The problem isn't that agencies did a bad job of interpreting "high value" (though to be clear, some did do a bad job); rather, it's that formulating their task in this way was bound to produce unsatisfactory results.

We're going about this backward. Ideally, we'd be able to start by talking about what the available datasets are, not by trying to figure out what we hope they'll turn out to be. Government should audit its data holdings, publish the list, then ask the public to identify what we want and need. This won't be easy, but it's far from impossible. And any other approach will inevitably leave the public wondering what we're not being told.

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