At the beginning of the year Micah Sifry, the man behind TechPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum, wrote an extended article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “A See-Through Society.” The article strikes a hopeful note as it outlines the various ways that the web is helping to make our government more transparent. Sifry writes, “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.”
Sifry lauds the efforts of cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington DC who have led the way in opening up the data they collect to citizens who are willing and interested enough to dig into it, chop it up, reorganize it, and use it to tell us something new about the places we live. He also points out independent projects like PublicMarkup, iLive.at and EveryBlock that are sparking a “revolution in participation” where people “talk, share, and talk back online,” engaging their local governments in new ways.
There are many aspects of Sifry’s article that I think are spot-on. There is no doubt that the incredible flood of data we are witnessing, and the innovative ways that individuals, non-profits and companies are using that data, are opening up government in important ways. However, if we are really concerned about communities and individuals getting the information they need to participate in our democracy, then we have to ask if transparency is the same thing as clarity, if seeing necessarily means understanding, and if data, even when organized and visualized in powerful ways, the same as information.