Public=Online

Accountability, better services and economic opportunity

The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.

At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.

Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public – and why it’s so critical that we succeed in our mission.

OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it’s useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, “Would what I’m saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?”

After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way…

An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.

Here’s what we mean.

1) Transparency and Accountability

Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what’s (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.

Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens’ ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin…

In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let’s create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.

2) Better Government Service

Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen’s life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.

Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what’s working and what’s not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we’ll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.

Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.

3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O’Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.

What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.

When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I’d put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it’s data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.

The only tricky part is that government doesn’t inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won’t become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own – and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.

We’re going to have to demand it of them. And that’s what we’re doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you’ll join us.

Gov 2.0 guide to the Public Online Information Act (POIA)

The Public Online Information Act (POIA) of 2010, H.R.4858, was introduced on March 13 by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to put public information online in user-friendly formats in a timely fashion. The bill applies to Executive Branch agencies and is essentially a proactive approach to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). Sunlight Foundation has launched Public=Online, a grassroots campaign to gain support for the legislation.

Overview:

To establish an advisory committee to issue nonbinding government-wide guidelines on making public information available on the Internet, to require publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet, to express the sense of Congress that publicly available information held by the legislative and judicial branches should be available on the Internet, and for other purposes.

Video intro to POIA:

Press conference with Rep. Israel, Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum Founder Andrew Rasiej announcing the bill:

Israel and Miller discuss POIA on MSNBC:

More POIA

An emblem for open government

As we’ve written about quite a lot so far in 2010, we are launching a national campaign to make government more open, transparent, and ultimately: accountable.

Today, we’re excited to put out one of the most important parts of building this campaign: the “emark” that will be emblematic of what we as an open government community stand for.

If you hadn’t noticed it yet, this is it at right.

This mark (as part of a full logo below) is a very important step because we’re not just building a campaign. This is a movement we’re part of. And when we say “we,” it is not just “the Sunlight Foundation” that we are talking about. It’s all of us who care about changing the relationship citizens have with their government by making it more transparent, participatory and collaborative. It’s anyone who thinks that government can work better on their behalf and has a responsibility to do so.

We hope this emblem is a first step in giving us something we can all own and point to as a symbol for what open government means to us, and what we believe. We hope it becomes a rallying point for those standing up to make an open, transparent government something we can hang our hat on – or our iPhones and Androids on.

We believe that what government does, how it is influenced, or how it spends our money are all things that are public information – and today, “public” means that the government’s data must be accessible by any citizen, at any time, from anywhere: online and in real-time.

Through the campaign we hope to dramatically further the movement for open government that has been building, and give it the infrastructure it needs to be successful at the local, state and federal levels for years to come.

The full logo that we’ve created for the campaign looks like this at left, and is what we’ll use for things like the campaign’s central website. While “Public=Online” could (or, will, I should say) one day be a fulfilled goal as a campaign and no longer be needed, the open government mark as indicated above is “evergreen” as we say, and can be used for years to come – no matter the campaign needs of the day related to openness and transparency. It’s also intentionally not “Sunlight centric” (one of our criteria), so that while it may be “powered by Sunlight,” any organization working toward government transparency can use it on their website or in their materials.

There were a large number of other criteria that we at Sunlight, and others around the country, felt the emblem needed to fulfill, and this video by our new media wiz, Noah Kunin, very creatively walks us through some of the logo’s features.

Google Group

The Wiki

We will launch our nationwide campaign in full in March to put necessary pressure on government and build the massive political muscle that will be required to get government to do what we need. Please join us by getting involved in whatever way works best for you. If you’re reading this, you’re already helping actually. The next step is join in the conversation via our Google Group “Citizens for Open Government” or even simply leave a comment below letting us know what you think.