Notes from Transparency Camp

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transparency camp

Photo of Transparency Camp opening session by Avelino Maestas.

I’m at Transparency Camp in Washington DC this weekend, an unconference organized by the Sunlight Foundation. It is difficult for me to believe that Sunlight Foundation has only been around for four years now. It has grown so much over that time – in terms of reach, visibility, operating budget, and influence. Jake Brewer begins the day by asking participants to call out some of the achievements of the transparency movement over the past year. The list is impressive:

And many others. So many others that my thumbs weren’t able to keep up as I tried to list them on my phone. Most of the participants here are based in Washington DC and focused on transparency and open government in the United States, but there is also a small group representing international projects. Four of our advisors from the Technology for Transparency Network are here:

Open Society Institute’s Information Program has brought over a contingent of transparency activists from Central & Eastern Europe who are working with Tony Bowden of mySociety to scale up their projects:

Beyond Apps Contests: Sustaining Transparency Initiatives

The first session of the day I attend is lead by Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs, which organized Apps for Democracy, a $50,000 innovation contest for developers of civic applications for residents of Washington DC. The 30-day competition yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook applications. The winners of the contest:

Not a bad outcome for $50,000 of philanthropy. I’ve seen much less come out of major $500,000 grants. If you are interested in organizing your own “Apps for Democracy” style contest for your city, Peter has outlined his recommendations on how to do so in a very thorough guide.

Because these “app innovation contests” tend to yield such high returns in terms of the number of applications developed, they have begun sprouting up left and right. There is, for example, the Apps for Healthy Kids competition: “$40,000 in prizes to create innovative, fun and engaging software tools and games that encourage children directly or through their parents to make more nutritious food choices and be more physically active.” There is Apps for America – rounds one and two. The Knight Foundation and FCC are launching the Apps for Inclusion Challenge. There is also the Stockholm Challenge and the We Media PitchIt! Challenge. Last year we also saw the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center Mobile Challenge, the USAID Development 2.0 Challenge, and the Social Actions Change the Web Challenge. Even the US Military has an apps contest now.

These are just a few examples – last year the Knight Foundation commissioned Arabella to thoroughly map and evaluate all technology-related innovation competitions. It is a great guide to understanding the similarities, differences, and results of the competitions.

But what happens after the winners are announced and the competition comes to its conclusion? Building an application is just the first step in a long process to becoming a sustainable project that makes an actual impact. Unfortunately it seems that most winners are given little guidance once they win their $10,000 prize as to how they can market and manage its development to build up a significant enough user base so that it becomes widely adopted. Part of the problem is that there currently isn’t an easy platform for civic application developers to market and distribute their products or for users to find and purchase them. That is, there is no equivalent iPhone or Android app store for open government applications, and you can’t always find them easily by just searching Google. Also, winning projects aren’t given business development advice and they are rarely introduced to venture capitalists or big funders like Omidyar Network who can give them enough support to scale up and develop a sustainability model.

One hopeful development is the emergence of fellowship programs that are meant to give the kind of business development and marketing skills that many of these projects are in need of. They include: Y Combinator, TED Fellows, PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, and most applicably here, Code for America. Micah Sifry also points out that some politicians are beginning to adopt applications that come out of these contests and might start to support their future development. For example, Bronx city councilmember Fernando Cabrera has put SeeClickFix right on the front page of his website.

Elections Data

Next I attend a session organized by some open source coders from Google about a project they have been working on since 2008 to make US voting information easily accessible on Google Maps, and via Google Fusion Tables so that any website can tap into data and use it to develop their own applications with voting information. The project began when Google partnered with the Pew Center on the States in order to provide a standardized way to answer three basic questions: 1) How do I register or find out if I’m registered?, 2) Where do I vote?, 3) What’s on the ballot?.

You would think that those are three pretty easy questions to answer, but in fact each state – and sometimes each county – organizes the information that would provide those answers in very different ways. The Google coders went through some of the technical challenges in gathering and organizing all the data. In the end, rather than keeping the answers to the questions for themselves, Google is making all the data available to anyone who wants to use it.

This leads to valuable voter information sites like Project Vote Smart and Imagine Election. I’m sure we’ll see quite a few others before this year’s November 2 Senate Elections (which includes my homegirl Barbara Boxer vs. former HP CEO Carly Fiorina).

We ended the session by quickly looking at two international election-related projects. Felipe walked us through Vota Inteligente from Chile, which we have documented on the Technology for Transparency Network. Then Eric Gundersen of Development Seed (my favorite web dev shop) profiled their work on Afghanistan Election Data, a project they did for the National Democratic Institute to visualize the voting data in the 2009 Afghan presidential elections. The project is phenomenal – check out the comparative map of presidential voting results and primary ethnic group by voting district. My only regret is that this information hasn’t been made available to the Afghan people; it is not accessible in Dari or Pashto and wasn’t distributed in anyway offline.

A Healthy Information Diet

Next I attend a session facilitated by Clay Johnson, the Director of Sunlight Labs (who made three useful challenges to developers at the beginning of the day). Clay wants to use the metaphor of food to provoke a discussion about what constitutes a healthy information diet and what we can do to make less people “information obsese.”

He begins by stating the obvious: that most people fill up on the ridiculous and mostly fact-less banter that comes from the mouths of people like Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. But these are not good sources of information to become an informed voter and engaged citizen. In fact, Clay goes so far as to call opinion and advocacy journalism the “high fructose corn syrup” of any information diet. Facts and actual legislation, on the other hand, are our vegetables. But let’s be realistic; few or us have the time or mental energy to read through every revision of every piece of legislation that passes through THOMAS. None of us were able to keep up to date with all the daily changes made to the health care reform bill. Rather we depended on experts like Ezra Klein (born 1984! good lord) to help us interpret those changes and their likely impacts.

So what does a healthy “food pyramid” for information look like? What is a healthy diet for all of us, and how do we promote it? Most of us are happy that the FDA is around to ensure food safety and to promote healthy eating. Do we need a similar institution to ensure information safety and healthy information consumption?

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One participant in the room suggests that we need better information visualization to better communicate the power of raw data to a popular audience. But others in the room question whether these types of visualizations actually lead to a healthy information diet, or just to information pornography?

If most mainstream media is high fructose corn syrup and most people see as broccoli, then what sort of institutions can bridge the divide between raw data and fact-less opinion? I point to ProPublica as a model that I think should be replicated far and wide. They deal with very data intensive reporting projects, like their “Eye on the Stimulus” project, and then work with mainstream news organizations to help them report more accurately and compellingly about how the stimulus money is being spent. We are starting to see echoes of this internationally. For example, the Kenyan government launched their own form of an “economic stimulus” in 2003 with the Constituency Development Fund to put local constituencies in charge of their own local development projects. That fund is often criticized for its lack of transparency and accountability, but Sodnet has recently built a “Budget Tracking Tool” to show how much has been allocated to each constituency and to enable users to report issues about how the funds are being used. It seems that the tool still has a ways to go until it has a real impact, but it is a nice start. (We’ll try to document the project on the Technology for Transparency Network.)

Measuring Transparency and Evaluating the Impact of Transparency Projects

Finally I ended the day by co-facilitating a session with Robert Damashek of Binary Group on how to measure transparency and how to measure the impact of particular transparency projects. We had two separate – but very related – threads of conversation throughout the session. First, how do we measure the general progress of the transparency movement over the years? How do we know if a particular city, state, country, or region is becoming more or less transparent across time? Several people in the room mentioned the research by Transparency International, but it is important to note that their annual Corruption Perceptions Index measures how corrupt citizens perceive their country to be. Global Integrity, on the other hand, attempts a slightly more journalistic approach by looking at a range of indicators (like public access to information, budget processes, whistle blowing measures, and anti-corruption law) and ranking each country on a one-to-five scale for each indicator. (Global Integrity explains its methodology here.) According to their research, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Poland all rank higher than the United States. In fact, even Romania (an incredibly corrupt country in my experience) ranks above the United States.

The second, related thread of conversation dealt with how to measure the impact of specific transparency and accountability projects. This is exactly what we are trying to do in our research at the Technology for Transparency Network. In addition to documenting what open government projects exist internationally (and we find new ones every single day), we also want to evaluate those projects to see what sort of measurable impact they have. It’s great, for example, that Guatemalans now have much more access to the selection process of judges for the Supreme Court and Appellate Courts, but is that actually ensuring that the process is held more accountable and that judges are selected on merit rather than favors and relationships? I’ve written some of my thoughts on this in our first “Technology for Transparency Review” and I’ve got a second edition that will focus even more on impact that should be up sometime tomorrow or Monday.

That’s all from day one of Transparency Camp. I probably won’t be able to cover tomorrow’s discussions, but there’s an active feed of twitterers at #tcamp2010 and I’m sure that a summary post will be up soon on the Sunlight Blog. Also, thanks to Bailey McCann for her profile of the Technology for Transparency Network on CivSource.

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