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Voluntary Transparency And Digital Civic Literacy Help Build Strong Communities

The following guest post is by Matt Rosenberg of Seattle, founder of the non-profit Public Eye Northwest and the news knowledge base site Public Data Ferret, a Seattle Times local news partner.

There’s no dispute that mandated public disclosure in accordance with freedom of information and open meetings laws is a cornerstone of any modern democratic society, as is freedom of political expression and of the press. But there are some new twists. More convenient and scalable approaches are required than necessarily filing an information request with a public bureaucracy. And the apprehending of recent and high-news value public information cannot anymore be the province solely of an annointed few, “the priesthood of journalism.”

The need is growing for relevant, distributable public data in malleable formats, and for filtering, synopsizing and promulgating through myriad channels public information on spending, contracts, ethics, public health, transportation, infrastructure, the environment, technology, scientific and medical research.

These building blocks of knowledge and participatory democracy matter because health of communities and societies depends ever more on collaboration between private and public actors around initiatives, policies, priorities and especially, performance metrics which are developed and applied with unflinching integrity.

With this at top of mind, I’ve joined with some outstanding partners to form Public Eye Northwest, a Seattle-based non-profit which aims to teach digital civic literacy, and foster voluntary government transparency and constructive public engagement. The work plan includes classroom and community outreach to engender dialog, skills development and content creation. A related thrust is collaboration with local, regional and state governments around best practices. A core, ongoing demonstration project is a news and knowledge base effort called Public Data Ferret, where selected, high-priority government news and data that would otherwise likely slip between the cracks is summarized, always with links to original source documents, and archived by jurisdiction and topic.

The holdings also include tutorials on user-friendly government databases and will expand to include applications developed from government open data, as those begin to proliferate. We also aim over time to integrate more data visualization as skilled practitioners are recruited. Distribution channels are growing and include a partnership with the Seattle Times, which has presciently organized a growing network of leading hyper-local news and content-themed blogs.

Civic open content and data are growing thanks in part to government transparency portals which accent consolidation of disparate nodes within the enterprise, and better display and interactivity. But this will take time. To know what to highlight and consolidate we also need to know what’s out there to begin with, lurking in the dark, government corners of “the deep web.” With an eye toward our organization’s initial field of operations, the Seattle region and Washington state, here are but a very few examples.

The Washington State Department of Health issues monthly reports of disciplinary actions against health care workers, and provides a consumer-facing database which daylights related documents and proceedings. It’s helpful to know who’s had their license indefinitely suspended after testing positive for alcohol and methadone while on duty in the emergency room and failing to respond to related charges; or who’s facing unprofessional conduct charges for allegedly rubbing a soiled diaper in the face of an adult family home resident and verbally abusing residents. Any provider can be checked for current license status and any disciplinary actions including probation or monitoring. But the names of facilities where alleged misdeeds occurred are often missing and it takes a phone call to find out. This should be remedied.

Through the state’s “Reports To The Legislature” online compendium arrives sobering news from the Office of The Superintendent For Public Instruction, that the proportion of bilingual program students successfully transitioning to all-English instruction last school year dropped by 24 percent, even as related spending hit a new high.

At the federal level, other resources bring open public data back to the local arena. Embedded in each U.S. government department and agency is an Inspector General’s office which roots out waste, fraud and inefficiency, writes it all up and posts it online. Some recent audit highlights: costly excess space in U.S. postal facilities including the Seattle District; criminal öffender re-entry programs, including one in Washington state, which do poorly at measuring and cutting recidivism; and a Washington state public radio station which misspent grant funds, erred in its financial reporting and record-keeping, and contravened transparency requirements.

Assessments of local government transparency require a look at online meeting agendas of city council and school boards to see what’s in them, or not. Inclusion of distinct links to legislation, staff reports, contracts and consultant reports encourages bloggers and online journalists to hone in on hot topics, and include original source materials to enrich coverage. Many cities do that but others take the far clunkier approach of posting agenda document packets in one huge pdf file, often more than 100 pages long, making it unlikely anyone would take the time to examine or utilize key source material.

Some small government bodies responsible for water and sewer systems or flood control don’t even have websites through which meeting notices and agendas can be displayed, much less ordinances and contracts. One in our region, the French Slough Flood Control District, was recently called out in a state audit for dealing no-bid contracts to two companies, each partially owned by one of its three commissioners.

The open knowledge infrastructure needs strengthening in other ways: The definition of “open government” needs to be expanded to include “open science.” It should include the published research of our publicly funded universities and public health agencies, findings which often verge on performance assessments of local or regional policy but are too often hidden behind online pay walls of professional and academic publications.

A smidgen of good news here: “open-access” peer-reviewed, free Web-only journals are beginning to flourish as an alternative. Recent reports co-authored by government or university researchers in Seattle have assessed and found wanting: financial incentives to cut high-risk drug taking and sexual behaviors; and the utility of mandatory point of sale nutrition information to influence consumer choices at fast food restaurants. However, another open access science journal report demonstrated the positive economic effects for bars and taverns of Washington state’s public indoor smoking ban, contrary to what critics had grimly predicted. The source for all this and more is science.gov, a U.S.-sponsored search engine.

The upshot: Open government and open knowledge can’t simply be demanded, or left to intermediaries. As the news and information eco-system continues to evolve, and as ease of sharing public information through social media, video, data visualization and other tools continues to grow, more and more of us are empowered to hold government accountable, and partner with it to build understanding, better policy and stronger communities.

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