After my WordCamp Nashville presentation, I transitioned from talking about how to write clean code, to talking about how the web is transforming the world of journalism, and what it means for civic engagement. This was the topic of the BarCamp NewsInnovation talk two weeks ago in Philadelphia given by Dave Zega and I (we work together at ElectNext). I also presented a longer, more in-depth version at TransparencyCamp in Washington, DC last week, with our CEO, Keya Dannenbaum.
Both conferences were “unconferences,” which means there’s an emphasis on discussion rather than long presentations, and the schedule is determined by the conference participants themselves, on the morning of the conference. However, both had some pre-scheduled talks, including ours.
The TransparencyCamp talk was titled “Civic engagement, local journalism, and open data.” Here’s the summary:
A fundamental purpose of journalism in the United States is to inform citizens, so that they can effectively engage in democratic self-governance. The ongoing disappearance of local newspapers in the digital era is well known, resulting in the decline of traditional watchdog journalism at the local and state levels. There are discussions of “news deserts” and unchecked malfeasance by elected officials. At the same time, we’re seeing the rise of citizen journalists, the growth of organizations that harvest, enhance, and distribute an ever-expanding range of data on government activities, and the creation of new opportunities to share, discuss, and analyze information vital to civic engagement.
For the goals of achieving government transparency and effective self-governance, what has been lost and what has been gained in all these transformations? Is the net effect positive or negative, and what lies ahead? In this talk we’ll lay out the different arguments in this debate, and we’ll engage the audience in the conversation.
I was really impressed by the quality of the audience questions at both conferences, and their engagement with Twitter. Our talk generated over 40 tweets at Transparency Camp. Here are samples from both talks:
@MobileTrevor Result of losing local news is fewer voters, lower civic participation, increased corruption, etc says @mtoppa #TCamp13
@zpez how can you maintain local engagement after an acute issue is resolved? build stronger networks; tap into the ppl w/ the data #TCamp13
@_anna_shaw The ‘digital political baseball cards’ from @ElectNext are pretty darn cool… Gonna be playing around with these later. #TCamp13
@ianfroude Local papers dying, so ‘ppl have gained access to the world (intl/natl papers) but lost access to their backyard’ #TCamp13
@jmikelyons: Politicians know everything about us, we know little about them. The Big Data Divide. Big civic problem #bcni13
@emmacarew #bcni13 impressive: folks at @electnext are working directly with the mayor’s office to makes data not just available but accessible
Transparency Camp was the larger of the two – over 600 people attended. Some traveled quite a distance to be there. In our talk we had questions from people involved in the media from as far away as Poland and Uganda.
Both conferences had a great sense of community. Many of the conversations I heard around me were similar to conversations we have at ElectNext, about how to bring greater transparency to government activities, and making open government data accessible and useful. I also had an unexpected but very welcome encounter: while passing through a crowd I heard a nearby voice say “hey Mike Toppa,” and turned to see a face I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was a former co-worker from my time at HighWire Press. He works at the Sunlight Foundation now. It was great to catch up and compare notes on our work. After the conference, I also got to catch up with my old friends Pat and Emma, from my days at Georgetown.
Here are the videos for both talks. If you only have time for one, I recommend the TransparencyCamp talk (the first one below). Below the videos are my summaries of the sessions I attended at Transparency Camp.
Transparency Camp Notes
These are my own brief summaries of the talks I attended. Most sessions had note takers, and their notes are at the TransparencyCamp site.
- Electoral districts API talk: this was an overview of different initiatives out there, and pros and cons of different approaches. If you use maps to determine districts, you can do things like determine a district from a geo-location. But you can’t disambugate things like apartment buildings that are split between districts, which is actually fairly common (often by odd/even apt numbers or by floor). This is called “packing” or “cracking”, depending on the goals of the gerrymandering (to either dilute or concentrate the voting power of a group of voters, and/or aid or hinder turnout efforts). District boundaries can also vary for state rep vs state senator, etc. At a technical level, using maps is easier. Addresses are harder because of the volume of data involved and you can’t rely on geo-location. Google is building up data based on addresses; most others are using maps.
- A new project for city and state level engagement from opengovernment.org: they’re releasing a platform soon for facilitating citizen engagement with city councils, state reps, etc. It includes a petitioning system and lets elected officials register their own accounts, for direct online interaction with constituents. It also allows for entering info on legislation, etc, but isn’t a legislation management system.
- “Municipal Open Gov efforts don’t scale down” – this was a discussion of the challenges of providing open gov in smaller cities, which don’t have the resources of big cities like Philly, Boston, etc. Short version: the only way to make this happen is to provide systems that help solve real city management problems (i.e. transparency for transpareny’s sake isn’t going to happen if it means creating more work for already overworked staff) and give those systems an open api, so openness requires no additional effort.
- Tracking shadow campaign money: this was led by Robert Maguire from OpenSecrets. It was fascinating but depressing: after the Citizens United decision, it’s become almost impossible to track hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign money. He described a complex set of schemes involving phony non-profits and other front organizations where money is moved around repeatedly so it’s hard to track. The FEC and IRS requirements are so minimal now, it’s hard to tell where the money is coming from or how it is spent. But at Open Secrets they are able to give at least some top-level figures through IRS records, but often only a year after the fact. So they can get a rough sense of how much is being spent in total through this new shadow system, but they can’t get many specifics.