This week is Sunshine Week, a nationwide discussion about the importance of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. During this week we pay special attention to our collective obligation to bring some “sunshine” to the often shadowy processes of government decision-making.
Different governments have different ways of inhibiting effective oversight of government decision-making, from intentional stonewalling and secrecy to budget-driven decisions to reduce hours and staffing.
These problems, while diverse, may have a similar solution: Public records and the content of public meetings should be considered public data, and accessible to anyone who wants it, including electronically.
Technology has made the transmission of information easy and inexpensive, and when we demand electronic, online access to public information, we add a new and important method of bringing sunlight to all corners of government.
When we ask that public data be made regularly available on a website, we don’t have to wait for responses to our requests to find out about government activities. We can find out about decisions made in our name, right on our own computers. We can find out about upcoming government committee meetings on our own phones. We can download information that lets us compare existing and past government behavior. We can evaluate the impact of different kinds of decisions across governmental units.
Many states and cities have developed open data policies that make this kind of proactive release of public data a reality, and this allows for civic-facing technologists and others to make this public information more accessible to more people.
In Chicago, readily available data about municipal lobbying has enabled civic technologists to develop easy ways to visualize the strength of lobbyist involvement in city lawmaking.
In Philadelphia, people were able to use campaign finance disclosures to demonstrate how much and to whom city wards were contributing—and also how much was coming to fund city campaigns from outside of the city or even the state.
Open data policies can also lead to the crowdsourcing of useful information for cities to use in improving their service to citizens.
In South Bend, Ind., civic technologists built an interface that allowed people to both report vacant buildings to the city and for the city to let people know about existing plans for building demolition or redevelopment.
In all cases, the value of open data is limited by the degree to which local transparency advocates know about it and use it. It’s time to expand the rights we have to access all the halls of power, be they the elegant marble foyers of the United States Congress or the carpet-tiled corridors of the smallest town office.
To help the sun shine into your own government through a different window, urge it to establish an official policy that guarantees you constant and immediate access to your public information. When we free the public data we’re achieving the enduring goal of freedom of information—while using the advantages of the 21st century.
Emily Shaw is the national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation.