Pharos-Tribune

Columns

March 16, 2014

Technology makes open government easier

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.

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