Transparency Camp revealed the contrast between old and new models of protecting the public’s right to know about our government.
At the same time as Transparency Camp, David Simon, an old beat reporter in Baltimore, wrote a piece in the Washington post about the good old days of crime beat reporting. Armed with a knowledge of public information law and a relationship with a pro-first-amendment judge, and motivated by his role as the representative of the public’s right to know, Simon wouldn’t take recalcitrant cops’ excuses as an answer, and relentlessly pursued the truth about crime and police activity. In the article, Simon laments the demise of beat reporting. There just aren’t reporters on the street covering a topic and pursuing the truth. Even the current judge in the district doesn’t have an interest in enforcing public information access, as Simon found recently when he tried to find information about a police shooting.
Meanwhile, over at Transparency Camp, one of the attendees was Brian Sobel the developer of the Are you Safe iPhone application that shows location-based crime information for blocks in Washington, DC. Information about crime isn’t published because one intrepid reporter made the cop turn over the crime report, but because the database of crime stats is online.
Just because there is data about a crime doesn’t mean the data is accurate or that justice is being served. In Baltimore there were no journalists or bloggers investigating the police shooting of an unarmed 61-year-old man in February, until the retired journalist starting making calls. What’s needed is not only mapping but community input, like the everyday activism on Uncivil Servants which captures reports of illegal parking by New York city employees. And like the crowdsourced journalism managed by Amanda Michel who is taking her experience with citizen journalist campaign coverage to ProPublica. Her first assignment as Editor of Distributed Reporting is to get many eyes to cover the implementation of the stimulus bill.
In David Simon’s world, a few brave reporters had the special knowledge and connections to get enforcement of open data and open records. In our world, the government policy needs to make data available as a matter of course, and crowdsourcing tools and communities need to give more people the knowledge and the courage that David Simon had to demand accurate information from the cops.
The world is different. Open data and crowdsourcing give more people the raw information and open government literacy that David Simon had. But we need the organizational structures, funding, and motivation to use them. There’s no guarantee how well the new way will work, but there are tremendous opportunities, and it’s up to us to make them work.