This One Time at Transparency Camp, ‘Hacktivists’ Pushed Open Government

BY Meena Ganesan and Alex Bruns  April 30, 2012 at 3:05 PM EDT


More than 450 hackers, activists and journalists attended the Sunlight Foundation’s weekend Transparency Camp. Photo by Meena Ganesan

As members of the White House Correspondents’ Association took a break this weekend for their annual gala, a new breed of journalists, activists, web developers and hackers convened just across the Potomac River in an effort to spark greater civic transparency.

Under the billing as an “unconference,” the Sunlight Foundation’s annual Transparency Camp — held at George Mason University’s Arlington, Va. campus — was created to provide an open forum for participants to drive solutions, share experiences and collaborate on furthering the goal of open government.

“Open government is about disclosure,” Sunlight’s communication director Gabriela Schneider said. “In the 21st century, it means immediate disclosure online.” Data can be disseminated in different mediums with actual context once it’s made available to the public and computers, according to Schneider.

The tech-savvy participants spanned five continents, representing more than a dozen countries. Pedro Markun, of the Brazilian activist group Transparency Hackers, told the NewsHour the word “hacker” carries a powerful meaning in spite of its ties to criminality and juvenile delinquency.

“So we started taking it back,” Markun said.

Based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Transparency Hackers’ 900 activists, journalists, hackers and “curious citizens” work together to create new ideas and projects using open data.

They’re also behind the Hacker Bus, a vehicle the group purchased through crowdsourced funding to spread its message.

“We wanted to go to places and see what this hacker culture and this transparency culture could actually change in people’s lives,” activist Daniela Silva explained. The bus transports group members around Brazil to participate in transparency efforts related to Web development, activism, government work and journalism.

Transparency Hackers sprung up in 2009, shortly after Silva attended Sunlight’s first camp.

Three years later, Transparency Camp’s enrollment has more than tripled while still providing the same platform for collaboration between activists and bridging cultural gaps. In a session titled “Opening Data in Closed Societies,” activists and journalists from all over the world discussed the difficulties faced in their own countries from attempting to acquire government documents.

“When we talk openly in the Philippines, the door is closed,” said Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, “Patronage is the rule in some of our societies.”

Mangahas cited procurement barriers that audience members mostly agreed with — a lack of protection laws, government resistance and a saturation of data in paper form.

Hypothesizing on a what-if situation, transparency activist Marko Rakar, of Croatia’s data publishing organization Windmill, wondered aloud whether a government could control its citizens solely by withholding data and information from them. “Suddenly,” he said, “[the government's] competence for judgment can be questioned.”

Ben Teeuwen, of Utrecht, the Netherlands, is a project manager for the open government initiative Open State Foundation, and has recently partnered with one of Holland’s largest newspapers to monitor parliamentary procedures and party candidates. Teeuwen said this weekend was meant to imbibe insight and inspiration from Sunlight, an organization he hopes Open State can one day emulate in its own country.

Teeuwen cast the country’s Partij voor de Vrijheid, Dutch for Party for Freedom, as one of Holland’s most “concrete” problems and a reason groups like his need to exist. “People like to know where the party gets their funds, and they’re not doing that” Teeuwen said. “The first step,” he said, “is financial disclosure, then building relationships and making progress with the national parliament.”

Teeuwen’s concerns in Europe parallel a trend, an advocacy issue also prominent in the United States — where websites like OpenSecrets.org, developed by the Center for Responsive Politics, are also trying to shine a spotlight on money and influence in politics.

But as OpenSecrets can attest, even when the data are available, their relevance is not always clear. “The majority of [Americans] don’t have a reason to care,” according to Shankar Prasad, a professor at New York University and founder of a new community-organizing website called YourList.org.

Acquiring data is only the first step in these groups’ quest for transparency.

Todd Park, chief technology officer of the United States, concluded the event, noting the significance of context.

“Data by itself is useless,” he said. “You can’t eat data, you can’t pour data on a wound and heal it. The whole point [is to use] data as a way to catalyze the emergence of an ecosystem of innovation.”