2009 is probably the year that WhatDoTheyKnow.com came of age, and joined TheyWorkForYou and FixMyStreet as being banner services from mySociety. Tom talks about how the way that core services like this often work is that you build them, let them run for a few years, and then find that they’re indispensable. WhatDoTheyKnow now accounts for over 10% of FoI requests in the UK, so it seems to have got there ahead of schedule. How long until someone copies it for their country? (New Zealand looks like it might be first).
It’s easy to look back with hindsight and see clearly that the site would become that vital to openness, but looking forward, it rarely is. One question, that we often come back to, is “what’s the next thing that has some transparency available, but which would benefit greatly from an additional amount of public engagement. That conversation is starting to happen around open data, as data.gov.uk (and data.gov) as raw data is opened, currently on faith that good things will happen. If the Treasury’s UK public spending database (COINS) database is made accessible, there will be great interest, probably from both taxpayer’s alliances, and many people in between. That’s the half of the problem getting the most progress at the moment; and it’s vital, but it’s not everything.
In the US, there is much focus on defence spending, which is as important to their politics and budget, as the NHS is to the UK. The revolving door includes examples such as a Pentagon staffer working on the rules for a programme, and then going to the defence contractor to work on their side project for vastly more money. Here, it’s NHS rule makers going to the drug companies to whom that money goes, after having had influence over what money goes into which multi-year budgets. and significant politics, that will take care and passion to engage with in a way which is beneficial to the public interest. There will be many of those areas. If a company can sell useless bomb-detectors to Iraq, similar unscrupulous individuals are likely to be doing similar in less obvious areas.
A few weeks ago, 2 MPs sent a letter suggesting that Gordon Brown should be replaced starting a media frenzy, while the labour twitterarti, possibly acting as the beginnings of a singularity, said many things, summarised by: #fail. It went nowhere. Gordon Brown may already have his evidence that realtime openness can be good, but it has downsides when the position is not quite so easy to defend.
Stef used to say that TheyWorkForYou was the most important project that we’d likely ever work on. 3 years ago, when Julian first started building UNdemocracy.com, maybe that would be. Or is it Rob’s work on Who’s Lobbying? Something which watches who is pushing for what, where, and when. eyeSpy.MP is the crowdsourced panopticon on MPs; anyone can post what they see their MP doing by simply sending an email.
Clay Shirky talks about how change happens not when a new technology is created, but when that technology is widely available, such that the majority have access to it. Obama’s campaign in 2008 was seen as groundbreaking for the use of SMS in a campaign; while raising hundreds of millions of dollars through other media. The Haiti earthquake appeal raised $11 million in a week solely through the texts to an SMS number which charged the $10 to your phone bill.
If long term thinking in most of the world is 10,000 years, where a political cycle is a day, rather than a year, Tom’s 5 years of a waiting is a long news cycle of 1,500 days. When the public can really engage, and that will take more than data, but services, layered one atop another to provide a rich network of benefits, as people take an interest in what affects them.
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