A hotbed of techie agents of government transparency

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 4, 2010; G04

Monitoring your elected officials and keeping track of your government's spending? There's an app for that, as it turns out. Or such was the theme of the second annual TransparencyCamp, held at George Washington University last weekend, an event aimed at bringing programmers and activists together to mingle and talk shop about how to mine government data in clever ways.

"There's no reason why keeping tabs on your member of Congress shouldn't be as easy as seeing what your friends are posting on a Facebook wall," said David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation, explaining the concept behind his organization's site, OpenCongress.org, one of many online ventures that try to bring transparency to the workings of Capitol Hill.

It's a catchy sound bite that captures fairly well the type of work being done by many of the 250 or so folks who attended the event, hosted by a Washington- based nonprofit organization called the Sunlight Foundation.

Take LittleSis.org (an answer to Big Brother), which attempts to reveal ties between powerful business players and politicos by encouraging the public to log on and fill in such information. "We describe it as an involuntary Facebook," said Kevin Conner, the project's co-founder.

In the same way that social networking and apps have changed so much else on the planet, such technologies are being scrutinized for use in building stronger democracies. Dieter Zinnbauer, who traveled from Berlin to attend, said that his 15-year-old organization, Transparency International, works to fight corruption in countries around the world.

Although that work has generally been done off-line, the organization is hoping to figure out how to leverage the power of such technologies as the smartphone. To get ideas about how to do that, TransparencyCamp is the place to be. "The U.S. is very much in the forefront in this area," he said.

Ever been to a work-related conference where all the worthwhile conversations were held in the hallways, between the scheduled sessions? So have these guys. And that's the general idea that guided the get-together's Zen-like approach: No session topics were scheduled ahead of time, because the attendees were the ones expected to supply the passion and the ideas. "If you're here, you're supposed to be here," was one of the tenets. Because of such crowdsource-y sensibilities, organizers refer to the event not as a "conference" but as an "unconference."

"I'm excited about the structure of this event, in that there is no structure," joked Paul Kahn, who is with an organization called TheVoterGuide.org that builds online election guides, before a session at which people introduced themselves to one another and pitched conversation and session ideas.

"Transparency" has gained currency as a buzzword, thanks in part to the launches of Data.gov and Recovery.gov, sites that, respectively, try to make federal data and information about Recovery Act spending more accessible to the public.

But beyond Washington, there still seems to be confusion about what the word means. "My mom is like, 'What exactly do you do?' " said Laurel Ruma, whose business card describes her as a "Gov 2.0 evangelist" for the computer book publisher O'Reilly, where she is organizing an upcoming government and tech conference. Simply put, she said, she's like everyone else attending the unconference. "Everyone here just wants government to work better."

Some have been toiling in these trenches for a while -- the Sunlight Foundation is four years old -- but it still feels like early days for this movement. During the sessions I attended, even transparency-loving, tech-savvy attendees were sometimes caught unawares.

In one session, for example, somebody suggested that there should be a searchable map of the parking meters in Washington. Turns out that has already been done (at http://www.parkitdc.com). Later, someone suggested that the world would be well served if there were a way for people about to take a flight to check on the wait in the security line. And yes, it turns out that something like that (see http://www.flyontime.us) already exists, too.

A wide-eyed sense of excitement about the wonders of technology wasn't a strict requirement for entry to the two-day event. J.H. Snider, a political scientist who is the founder of an organization called iSolon.org, led a pair of sessions at the event and cast himself, in a later phone conversation, as having a quibble or two with this movement. One the one hand, he's glad that there's "incredible interest and excitement" about such issues as making government data accessible with technology.

On the other hand, he said, "they all think they're reinventing the world, but most of these ideas have been around for a long time."

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