A See-Through Society

How the Web is opening up our democracy

It may be a while before the people who run the U.S. House of Representatives’ Web service forget the week of September 29, 2008. That’s when the enormous public interest in the financial bailout legislation, coupled with unprecedented numbers of e-mails to House members, effectively crashed www.house.gov. On Tuesday of that week, a day after the House voted down the first version of the bailout bill, House administrators had to limit the number of incoming e-mails processed by the site’s “Write Your Representative” function. Demand for the text of the legislation was so intense that third-party sites that track Congress were also swamped. GovTrack.us, a private site that produces a user-friendly guide to congressional legislation, had to shut down. Its owner, Josh Tauberer, posted a message reading, “So many people are searching for the economic relief bill that GovTrack can’t handle it. Take a break and come back later when the world cools off.”

Once people did get their eyes on the bill’s text, they tore into it with zeal. Nearly a thousand comments were posted between September 22 and October 5 on PublicMarkup.org, a site that enables the public to examine and debate the text of proposed legislation set up by the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group for government transparency (full disclosure: I am a senior technology adviser to Sunlight). Meanwhile, thousands of bloggers zeroed in on the many earmarks in the bill, such as the infamous reduction in taxes for wooden-arrow manufacturers. Others focused on members who voted for the bill, analyzing their campaign contributors and arguing that Wall Street donations influenced their vote.

The explosion of public engagement online around the bailout bill signals something profound: the beginning of a new age of political transparency. As more people go online to find, create, and share vital political information with one another; as the cost of creating, combining, storing, and sharing information drops toward zero; and as the tools for analyzing data and connecting people become more powerful and easier to use, politics and governance alike are inexorably becoming more open.

We are heading toward a world in which one-click universal disclosure, real-time reporting by both professionals and amateurs, dazzling data visualizations that tell compelling new stories, and the people’s ability to watch their government from below (what the French call sousveillance) are becoming commonplace. Despite the detour of the Bush years, citizens will have more opportunity at all levels of government to take an active part in understanding and participating in the democratic decisions that affect their lives.

Log On, Speak Out

The low-cost, high-speed, always-on Internet is changing the ecology of how people consume and create political information. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that roughly 75 percent of all American adults, or about 168 million people, go online or use e-mail at least occasionally. A digital divide still haunts the United States, but among Americans aged eighteen to forty-nine, that online proportion is closer to 90 percent. Television remains by far the dominant political information source, but in October 2008, a third of Americans said their main provider of political information was the Internet—more than triple the number from four years earlier, according to another Pew study. Nearly half of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds said the Internet was their main source of political info.

Meanwhile, we’re poised for a revolution in participation, not just in consumption, thanks to the Web. People talk, share, and talk back online. According to yet another study by Pew, this one in December 2007, one in five U.S. adults who use the Internet reported sharing something online that they created themselves; one in three say they’ve posted a comment or rated something online.

People are eager for access to information, and public officials who try to stand in the way will discover that the Internet responds to information suppression by routing around the problem. Consider the story of a site you’ve never seen, ChicagoWorksForYou.com. In June 2005, a team of Web developers working for the city of Chicago began developing a site that would take the fifty-five different kinds of service requests that flow into the city’s 311 database—items like pothole repairs, tree-trimming, garbage-can placement, building permits, and restaurant inspections—and enable users to search by address and “map what’s happening in your neighborhood.” The idea was to showcase city services at the local level.

ChicagoWorks was finished in January 2006, with the support of Mayor Richard Daley’s office. But it also needed to be reviewed by the city’s aldermen and, according to a source who worked on the project, “they were very impressed with its functionality, but they were shocked at the possibility that it would go public.” Elections were coming up, and even if the site showed 90 percent of potholes being filled within thirty days, the powers-that-be didn’t want the public to know about the last 10 percent. ChicagoWorksForYou.com was shelved.

But the idea of a site that brings together information about city services in Chicago is alive and kicking. If you go to EveryBlock.com, launched in January 2008, and click on the Chicago link, you can drill down to any ward, neighborhood, or block and discover everything from the latest restaurant-inspection reports and building permits to recent crime reports and street closures. It’s all on a Google Map, and if you want to subscribe to updates about a particular location and type of report, the site kicks out custom RSS feeds. Says Daniel O’Neil, one of EveryBlock’s data mavens, “Crime and restaurant inspections are our hottest topics: Will I be killed today and will I vomit today?”

EveryBlock exists thanks to a generous grant from the Knight News Challenge, but its work, which covers eleven cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., offers a glimpse of the future of ubiquitous and hyperlocal information. EveryBlock’s team collects most of its data by scraping public sites and spreadsheets and turning it into understandable information that can be easily displayed and manipulated online.

It may not be long before residents of the cities covered by EveryBlock decide to contribute their own user-generated data to flesh out the picture that city officials might prefer to hide. EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty tells me that his team is figuring out ways for users to connect directly to each other through the site. Forums that allowed people to congregate online by neighborhood or interest would enable EveryBlock users to become their cities’ watchdogs. If city agencies still won’t say how many potholes are left unfilled after thirty days, people could share and track that information themselves.

Such a joint effort is no stretch to young people who have grown up online. Consider just a couple of examples: since 1999, RateMyTeachers.com and RateMyProfessors.com have collected more than sixteen million user-generated ratings on more than two million teachers and professors. The two sites get anywhere from half a million to a million unique visitors a month. Yelp.com, a user-generated review service, says its members have written more than four million local reviews since its founding in 2004. As the younger generation settles down and starts raising families, there’s every reason to expect that its members will carry these habits of networking and sharing information into tracking more serious quality-of-life issues, as well as politics.

Cities Lead the Way

Recognizing this trend, some public officials are plunging in. In his “State of the City” speech in January 2008, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg promised to “roll out the mother of all accountability tools.” It is called Citywide Performance Reporting, and Bloomberg promised it would put “a wealth of data at people’s fingertips—fire response times, noise complaints, trees planted by the Parks Department, you name it. More than five hundred different measurements from forty-five city agencies.” Bloomberg, whose wealth was built on the financial-information company he built, says he likes to think of the service as a “Bloomberg terminal for city government—except that it’s free.”

Bloomberg’s vision is only partly fulfilled so far. A visitor to the city’s site (nyc.gov) would have a hard time finding the “Bloomberg terminal for city government” because it’s tucked several layers down on the Mayor’s Office of Operations page, with no pointers from the home page.

Still, the amount of data it provides is impressive. You can learn that the number of families with children entering the city shelter system is up 31 percent over last year, and that the city considers this a sign of declining performance by the system. Or you can discover that the median time the city department of consumer affairs took to process a complaint was twenty-two business days, and that that is considered positive! Another related tool, called NYC*scout, allows anyone to see where recent service requests have been made, and with a little bit of effort you can make comparisons between different community districts. New York’s monitoring tools still leave much to be desired, however, because they withhold the raw data—specific addresses and dates-of-service requests—that are the bones of these reports. This means the city is still resisting fully sharing the public’s data with the public.

Compare that to the approach of the District of Columbia. Since 2006, all the raw data it has collected on government operations, education, health care, crime, and dozens of other topics has been available for free to the public via 260 live data feeds. The city’s CapStat online service also allows anyone to track the performance of individual agencies, monitor neighborhood services and quality-of-life issues, and make suggestions for improvement. Vivek Kundra, D.C.’s innovative chief technology officer, calls this “building the digital public square.” In mid-October, he announced an “Apps for Democracy” contest that offered $20,000 in cash prizes for outside developers and designers of Web sites and tools that made use of the city’s data catalog.

In just a few weeks, Kundra received nearly fifty finished Web applications. The winners included:

  • iLive.at, a site that shows with one click all the local information around one address, including the closest places to go shopping, buy gas, or mail a letter; the locations of recently reported crimes; and the demographic makeup of the neighborhood;

  • Where’s My Money, DC?—a tool that meshes with Facebook and enables users to look up and discuss all city expenditures above $2,500; and

  • Stumble Safely, an online guide to the best bars and safe paths on which to stumble home after a night out.

The lesson of the “Apps for Democracy” contest is simple: a critical mass of citizens with the skills and the appetite to engage with public agencies stands ready to co-create a new kind of government transparency.

Under traditional government procurement practices, it would have taken Kundra months just to post a “request for proposals” and get responses. Finished sites would have taken months, even years, for big government contractors to complete. The cost for fifty working Web sites would have been in the millions. Not so when you give the public robust data resources and the freedom to innovate that is inherent to today’s Web.

The Whole Picture

So, how will the Web ultimately alter the nature of political transparency? Four major trends are developing.

First, the day is not far off when it will be possible to see, at a glance, the most significant ways an individual, lobbyist, corporation, or interest group is trying to influence the government. Here’s how Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation and a longtime proponent of open government, sees the future of transparency online: “If I search for Exxon, I want one-click disclosure,” she says. “I want to see who its pac is giving money to, who its executives and employees are supporting, at the state and federal levels; who does its lobbying, whom they’re meeting with and what they’re lobbying on; whether it’s employing former government officials, or vice versa, if any of its ex-employees are in government; whether any of those people have flown on the company’s jets. And then I also want to know what contracts, grants, or earmarks the company has gotten and whether they were competitively bid.”

She continues: “If I look up a senator, I want an up-to-date list of his campaign contributors—not one that is months out of date because the Senate still files those reports on paper. I want to see his public calendar of meetings. I want to know what earmarks he’s sponsored and obtained. I want to know whether he is connected to a private charity that people might be funneling money to. I want to see an up-to-date list of his financial assets, along with all the more mundane things, like a list of bills he’s sponsored, votes he’s taken, and public statements he’s made. And I want it all reported and available online in a timely fashion.”

This vision isn’t all that far away. In the last three years, thanks in large measure to support from Sunlight, OMB Watch (a nonprofit advocacy organization that focuses on budget issues, regulatory policy, and access to government) created FedSpending.org, a searchable online database of all government contracts and spending. The Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org), meanwhile, has developed searchable databases of current lobbying reports, personal financial disclosure statements of members of Congress, sponsored travel, and employment records of nearly ten thousand people who have moved through the revolving door between government and lobbying. Taxpayers for Common Sense (Taxpayer.net) is putting the finishing touches on a complete online database of 2008 earmarks.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics, headed by Ed Bender, is filling in the picture at the state level, aiming to give the public “as complete a picture as possible of its elected leaders and their actions, and offer information that helps the public understand those actions,” he says. “This would start with the candidates running for offices, their biographies and their donors, and would follow them into the statehouses to their committee assignments and relationships with lobbyists, and finally to the legislation that they sponsor and vote for, and who benefits from those actions.”

The incoming Obama administration, meanwhile, has expressed a commitment to expanding government transparency, promising as part of its “ethics agenda” platform (change.gov/agenda/ethics_agenda) to create a “centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign-finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format,” as well as a “ ‘contracts and influence’ database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them.”

To insure that all citizens can access such a database, we can hope that Obama pushes universal Internet access as part of his investment in infrastructure. As Andrew Rasiej and I argued in Politico in December, “Just as we recognized with the Universal Service Act in the 1930s that we had to take steps to ensure everyone access to the phone network, we need to do the same today with affordable access to high-speed Internet. Everything else flows from this. Otherwise, we risk leaving half our population behind and worsening inequality rather than reducing it.”

3-D Journalism

A second trend propelling us toward a greater degree of political transparency is data visualization. The tools for converting boring lists and lines of numbers into beautiful, compelling images get more powerful every day, enabling a new kind of 3-D journalism: dynamic and data-driven. And in many cases, news consumers can manipulate the resulting image or chart, drilling into its layers of information to follow their own interests. My favorite examples include:

  • The Huffington Post’s Fundrace, which mapped campaign contributions to the 2008 presidential candidates by name and address, enabling anyone to see whom their neighbors might be giving to;
  • The New York Times’s debate analyzer, which converted each candidate debate into an interactive chart showing word counts and speaking time, and enabled readers to search for key words or fast forward; and
  • The Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Earmarks Watch Map (earmarkwatch.org/mapped),which layered the thousands of earmarks in the fiscal 2008 defense-appropriations bill over a map of the country allowing a viewer to zero in on specific sites and see how the Pentagon scatters money in practically every corner of the U.S.

The use of such tools is engendering a collective understanding of, as Paul Simon once sang, the way we look to us all. As news consumers grow used to seeing people like CNN’s John King use a highly interactive map of the United States to explain local voting returns, demand for these kinds of visualizations will only grow.

Little Brother Is Watching, Too

The third trend fueling the expansion of political transparency is sousveillance, or watching from below. It can be done by random people, armed with little more than a camera-equipped cell phone, who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Or it can be done by widely dispersed individuals acting in concert to ferret out a vital piece of information or trend, what has been called “distributed journalism.” In effect, Big Brother is being watched by millions of Little Brothers.

For example, back in August, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was having coffee at a Starbucks in Malibu when he was spotted by a blogger who took a couple of photos and posted them online. The blogger noted that Newsom was “talking campaign strategy” with someone, but didn’t know who. The pictures came to the attention of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci, who identified that person as political consultant Garry South. Soon political bloggers were having a field day, pointing out that the liberal mayor was meeting with one of the more conservative Democratic consultants around. This is sousveillance at its simplest.

The citizen-journalism project “Off the Bus,” which ultimately attracted thousands of volunteer reporters who posted their work on The Huffington Post during the 2008 election, was sousveillance en masse. Much of their work was too opinionated or first-person oriented to really break news, but Mayhill Fowler’s reporting of Barack Obama’s offhand remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser about “bitter” blue-collar workers at least briefly changed the course of the campaign. And there are numerous examples of bloggers and their readers acting in concert to expose some hidden fact. The coalition of bloggers known as the “Porkbusters” were at the center of an effort to expose which senator had put a secret hold on a bill creating a federal database of government spending, co-sponsored by none other than Barack Obama and Tom Coburn. Porkbusters asked their readers to call their senators, and by this reporting process, discovered that Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was the culprit. Soon thereafter, he released his hold. Likewise, Josh Marshall has frequently asked readers of Talking Points Memo to help him spot local stories that might be part of a larger pattern. It was this technique that helped him piece together the story of the firings of U.S. Attorneys around the country, for which he won the Polk Award.

The World’s A-Twitter

The final trend that is changing the nature of transparency is the rise of what some call the World Live Web. Using everything from mobile phones that can stream video live online to simple text message postings to the micro-blogging service Twitter, people are contributing to a real-time patter of information about what is going on around them. Much of what results is little more than noise, but increasingly sophisticated and simple-to-use filtering tools can turn some of it into information of value.

For example, in just a matter of weeks before the November election in the U.S., a group of volunteer bloggers and Web developers loosely affiliated with the blog I edit, techPresident.com, built a monitoring project called Twitter Vote Report. Voters were encouraged to use Twitter, as well as other tools like iPhones, to post reports on the quality of their voting experience. Nearly twelve thousand reports flowed in, and the result was a real-time picture of election-day complications and wait times that a number of journalistic organizations, including NPR, PBS, and several newspapers, relied on for their reporting.

Nothing to Hide

The question for our leaders, as we head into a world where bottom-up, user-generated transparency is becoming more of a reality, is whether they will embrace this change and show that they have nothing to hide. Will they actively share all that is relevant to their government service with the people who, after all, pay their salaries? Will they trust the public to understand the complexities of that information, instead of treating them like children who can’t handle the truth?

The question for citizens, meanwhile, is, Will we use this new access to information to create a more open and deliberative democracy? Or will citizens just use the Web to play “gotcha” games with politicians, damaging the discourse instead of uplifting it?

“People tend not to trust what is hidden,” write the authors of the November 2008 report by a collection of openness advocates entitled “Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda.” “Transparency is a powerful tool to demonstrate to the public that the government is spending our money wisely, that politicians are not in the pocket of lobbyists and special-interest groups, that government is operating in an accountable manner, and that decisions are made to ensure the safety and protection of all Americans.” In the end, transparency breeds trust. Or rather, transparency enables leaders to earn our trust. In the near future, they may have to, because more and more of us are watching. 

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Micah L. Sifry is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on how technology is changing politics; editor of its group blog techPresident.com; and a senior technology adviser to the Sunlight Foundation.