At EveryBlock, where my main role is to work with municipal governments to uncover new data sets, we’re experimenting with a new form of journalism where we treat freshly updated public records as block-level news. It’s a big job to acquire ongoing feeds of government data, and we have a broader goal of spreading the gospel of open data.

The two objectives:

  • Get more datasets for EveryBlock so it can be a better Web site
  • Convince governments to share that data with everyone, not just us

can lead to some cognitive dissonance in the minds of government leaders. They have two dominant templates of interaction for a project like ours, and neither of them fit very well.

First and foremost, we’re a journalism project. The template for government dealings with media usually revolves around a particular document or dataset that is frozen in time. The data will most often lead to a single exclusive article or series of articles for a single publication or media company. When I tell them that we want all of the data, everyday, forevermore — preferably published somewhere over the Web so that others can use the data as well — this message just doesn’t compute.

The other template that governments bring to EveryBlock is that of a technology vendor. They see our site and immediately grasp its utility. They naturally begin to think in terms of EveryBlock serving whatever technology or public communications goals they’re currently working. When they start applying this template to us, I have to steer them back to our fundamental nature — that we’re journalists executing on a long-term project, not software vendors looking to lock them into a long-term contract.

This is a lot of heavy lifting, so it’s a good thing EveryBlock is just one of many projects that seek to make government data more available, useful and usable. Here’s a few of the efforts we’ve made recently with others:

  • In December of last year, we met with a couple dozen other organizations to brainstorm the 8 Principles of Open Government Data. The principles attempt to define “open” in the context of the principles and lay down some fundamental definitions for primary terms like “public” and “data”. I’ve been able to use this set of principles in my work with municipalities as we seek to get more data for EveryBlock. It’s a very powerful message to tell them that I am not there just as an EveryBlock person. I tell them that it’s not about us, it’s about the data
  • Last month, I participated in a panel for the Open the Government and Sunshine Week called, Citizen Self-Help: Finding the Information You Need. We shared a number of tips & tricks on gathering information and talked about the challenges in presenting large data sets in ways that make sense. Sheila Krumholz (Center for Responsive Politics/OpenSecrets.org), David Moore (OpenCongress.org), and Sean Moulton (FedSpending.org) were the other panelists. One of the best questions asked by moderator Greg Elin of Sunlight Labs was, “what if all government data was suddenly made open? would your work be done?” See the entire panel discussion here.
  • EveryBlock is the local host for the Independent Government Observer’s Task Force, a “non-conference” structured around 3 sets of working group activities: Case Law, Municipal Governments, and Government and Copyright Issues. We’re looking forward to having a wide mix of people inside and outside government who want to make civic data more useful. I am helping organize the Municipal Government Working Group, so if you have some ideas and want to attend, let me know at at danx at everyblock.com or 773-321-8146.

More on the IGOTF as the summer wears on.