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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Public Information

Published:  June 18, 2010

Given our recent discussions about the sometimes complicated relationship between government and technological innovation, several of us at MPI were curious to see what Digital Capital Week’s "Gov and Org 2.0 Day" had in store.  Many of the conversations at the panels I attended on Wednesday swirled around websites focused on public information that help to promote government efficiency. Information, information, information—both its quantity and ease of access—was the day’s constant refrain, especially in discussions of how user-friendly public information can enhance citizen efficiency.

Since January’s Citizens United ruling, the transparency arena has been somewhat monopolized with campaign finance reform dialog.  While the campaign finance transparency cause is important, it was reinvigorating to hear so many conversations focused on providing effective and timely public information for citizens outside of a campaign context, and especially to hear of promising uses in nongovernmental situations. Gloria Huang from the social media group at the American Red Cross spoke on the “Transparency on the Social Web: How the Facebook Generation is Ushering in a New Era of Government” panel. Huang recounted how, during Hurricane Katrina,  text messaging proved to be a valuable communication tool for those on the ground affected by the storm--in many cases, the only one available. This demonstrated the importance to the Red Cross of using new channels of communication, and they have since adopted an approach to new media focused on the needs of the public.  “It’s all about the audience and where they’re going and how they’re using the technology. And government and non-government organizations all have to catch up with that,” said Huang.  As a result, the American Red Cross wanted to use text messaging and other forms of social media to encourage more back and forth with constituents and to push out useful information.  
“We spent a long time listening [to the public’s perspective]. Now when we do have something to put out to followers and want push it out, they feel more comfortable to ask questions and put things out,” explained Huang.  The Red Cross also now has a Disaster News Portal widget that you can add to your personal social media pages, and this week the Red Cross blog featured information about which of their social media tools would be of service in the event of a hurricane. For example, the site suggests folllowing the American Red Cross and FEMA on Twitter.
Sharing the panel with Huang were representatives from the FCC, the Sunlight Foundation, Facebook and a senatorial deputy press secretary. Riki Parikh, deputy press secretary for Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), explained that Warner’s office has employed many social media tools, such as Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and Linked In, so that constituents can follow the senator to “see what he is doing for Virginians.”  He highlighted the fact that the several reporters who used to regularly report on Warner have been laid off in the recent past.  Though deputy press secretaries can tightly editorialize their public social media content,  utilizing these tools is an important incremental step for citizens to access information about their elected officials and for those officials to keep a dialogue open with their constituents.  But not all Congressional members tweet or post YouTube videos.  “People who work in the Senate have worked there for a long time,” Parikh said when asked about the likelihood of Senate committees adopting social media tools, although he believes individual senators will begin to change their communication practices first by updating their websites.  
During the subsequent panel on “D.C.’s Office of the CTO: Past, Present and Future Gov 2.0 Leadership,” the District’s Chief Technology Officer, Bryan Sivak, took a different tack towards government incentives for using social media, emphasizing the potential for improving municipal efficiency with new media technologies. Sivak began the discussion by saying that the city is interested in “increasing the utility of the city’s services,” and he presented some of the various D.C. initiatives, such as QR tags on city buses, possible two-way communication with buses, and the D.C. Public Library Labs.  When an audience member posed a question to Sivak about creating a site that would inform citizens about the length of road construction projects, Sivak replied, “We have that at ddot.dc.gov.” Sivak also challenged the developer community to “write new apps with data.”  In my hometown of Chicago, the Open Government Chicago/meetup.com group of techies and better government geeks have already gotten energized around citizen-generated apps such as Citypayments.org (created by Everyblock’s Daniel X. O'Neil and developer Harper Reed) and a site that promotes better recycling.  Citizen developers mashing up data is not a new idea, but it is promising to take note of the increasing number of locally-focused transparency projects
The session ended with Sivak acknowledging that there is still a great digital divide in the District. “Higher income areas north and west of river have 95-99% adoption of high-speed broad band, while about south and east of the river, there is about 34% adoption,” he said. Beyond developer challenges, Sivak talked about possible ways to bridge the gap with senior citizen training paired with computer recycling programs, and he praised Byte Back, an organization that provides computer training to low-income residents of the Washington, D.C., area.  As the legislators on the public side continue to seek and leverage the community’s developer talents and adopt Web 2.0 technologies to better meet the expectations of its citizens, government transparency and efficiency will continue to help overcome an information gap.

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