April 4, 2010

Creating Greater Government Transparency

MONTIORING YOUR elected officials and keeping track of your government's spending? There's an app for that, as it turns out. Or such was the theme of the second annual TransparencyCamp, held at George Washington University last weekend, an event aimed at bringing programmers and activists together to mingle and talk shop about how to mine government data in clever ways.

"There's no reason why keeping tabs on your member of Congress shouldn't be as easy as seeing what your friends are posting on a Facebook wall," said David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation, explaining the concept behind his organization's site, OpenCongress.org, one of many online ventures that try to bring transparency to the workings of Capitol Hill.

It's a catchy sound bite that captures fairly well the type of work being done by many of the 250 or so folks who attended the event, hosted by a Washington- based nonprofit organization called the Sunlight Foundation.

Take LittleSis.org (an answer to Big Brother), which attempts to reveal ties between powerful business players and politicos by encouraging the public to log on and fill in such information. "We describe it as an involuntary Facebook," said Kevin Conner, the project's co-founder.

In the same way that social networking and apps have changed so much else on the planet, such technologies are being scrutinized for use in building stronger democracies. Dieter Zinnbauer, who traveled from Berlin to attend, said that his 15-year-old organization, Transparency International, works to fight corruption in countries around the world.

Although that work has generally been done off-line, the organization is hoping to figure out how to leverage the power of such technologies as the smartphone. To get ideas about how to do that, TransparencyCamp is the place to be. "The U.S. is very much in the forefront in this area," he said.

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