Tuesday, May 18th, 2010...3:19 pm

Transparency and Attention

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Over the last couple of years (let’s pick a random title and call it “The Obama Era”) we’ve seen a movement develop, spearheaded by groups like the Sunlight Foundation and enabled by some innovative thinkers in the White House, around open government data and transparency.  The movement has been wildly successful in publishing reams and reams of local, state and federal government data (in the US and abroad) in machine-readable formats online.  Amazing tools are being built to harness that data and make it accessible.  In the U.S., Maplight.org tracks campaign donations and their connection to legislative votes.  Global Voices’ Technology for Transparency Project has done a breathtaking job collecting and analyzing a slew of  international transparency projects.  The next stage of this phenomenon is creating programs to make meaning from that data, put context around it, and deliver it to citizens in a way that helps them become better decision makers.  ProPublica and OpenCongress are good examples of this model.

The push for transparency and accountability that drives this movement is based on a few important assumptions:

1)   that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and that as information is exposed corruption will dwindle;

2)   that the sets of data that are most important to expose are those that involve finances (agency budgets, campaign donations, earmarks, that sort of thing);

3)   that when this information is made public citizens will be empowered to use it to make enlightened decisions about policy, officials, budget priorities, etc.

For these assumptions to hold true we have a lot more work to do than just make sure information is free and available.  Transparency only matters if the end result is delivering information to citizens, which means storytelling is still a very important function—probably more important than it’s ever been—in American democracy.

Unfortunately, our storytelling institutions are failing.   Today’s corporate, profit-driven media outlets are much too focused on catching eyeballs so they can sell ads to do the hard work of translating policy information to citizens.  And as we all know the crisis of the news business model means there are fewer journalists employed by these organizations to engage in this translation process even if they wanted to.

It’s hard to know what the impact will be on our information diets as new media ventures—like blogs, hyperlocal news sites, and non-profit web-based models—rise to fill the void left by traditional media.  In order to discern the impact of this shift in news—or, for that matter, whether a shift is really happening—it’s vital to extend the concept of transparency to that equally essential democratic institution—the press.  We need tools to uncover patterns of attention as much as patterns of corruption.

Those of us who are working to promote civic engagement should be asking: What stories get reported?  How do those stories get told?  Who’s telling them?  Are blogs really as entrepreneurial and disruptive as we like to think, or are they simply amplifying stories that the MSM has already told?  Where do stories start and how do they get picked up?

Right now we’re making decisions as citizens assuming we have the best available set of information.   If we had answers to the questions above it’d be easier for news consumers (and reporters for that matter) to understand what we’re missing.  We could finally know what it is that we don’t know and potentially shift the demand for news coverage away from inanity and conflict (which, admittedly, sells ads) and towards rich, complex coverage of policy and its consequences.

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