Will open government lead to a more rational electorate? That’s the contention of Clay Johnson, the former director of Sunlight Labs, a community of open source developers and designers dedicated to making government more transparent, accountable and responsible. He recently spoke on a panel at Digital Capital Week, a ten-day festival in Washington, DC focused on technology, innovation and all things digital in our nation’s capital.
Johnson contends that we’re all guilty of creating echo chambers in our minds. The tools for
filtering news have become so powerful that we can avoid inconvenient information. Instead, we luxuriate only in the opinions that we agree with. From Jon Stewart to Glenn Beck, people seek out pundits and news sources that reflect their beliefs, not challenge them.
Open government offers the opportunity for the electorate to get their information without filters. Instead of relying on the analysis of commentators, the public will be able to examine the work of government and make their own opinions. Opening up government data will also empower developers to create web applications that communicate this information in creative and unexpected ways.
An example of this in action is the recently completed Design for America contest. The winners of this contest created new and simpler ways of understanding complex data and processes. Ever wonder why it’s so difficult for Congress to get anything done? A look at the diagram of How a Bill Becomes a Law will answer that question. Where is the Recovery Act money really going? Find out for yourself with this visualization.
Data presentation does not need to be dry and boring, as the Design for America contest demonstrates. It can even be art, as highlighted by Regina Holliday with her medical facts murals.
These compelling presentations are all derived from government data. Opening up this information allows the public to closely examine the work of their government.
Will it make for a more rational electorate? No. Rational is a subjective term. What’s rational to me is crazy to you.
However, it’s information that the public paid for – and deserves access to. Hopefully, after sifting through the facts for ourselves, we can at least make more informed decisions about the role government in the national life.