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Gov't is broken. Citizen scrutiny is the bugfix.

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 16 2008

Last week at ETech, one of my favorite tech conferences, three Brits convened a delightful panel on "moving theft-based activism to the global stage." The title actually made the discussion sound a bit illicit, when really all the three were talking about was how civic-minded hackers have being taking government data that ought to be in public view, and making it available to all--with transformative and beneficial effects. The question at hand was whether those of us who are doing this work at a country-level, like mySociety in the UK, or the network of folks around the Sunlight Foundation in the US (which, full disclosure, Andrew Rasiej and I consult for), might get engaged in a similar project around the United Nations.

Danny O'Brien of the EFF started off by telling the story of FaxyourMP.com, one of the first hacker-driven pro-democracy sites, which was sprung on the UK in 2000. It began with a brown paper bag handed to them by a source who gave them a list of all the fax numbers of the Members of Parliament. "We knew at the time that they didn't use email because they had no idea what spam was," Danny noted of MPs. "But we knew they couldn't turn off their fax machines because they got their talking points from the party whips every morning that way." At first, he said, MPs hated getting faxes from their constituents, "especially when FaxYourMP started publishing leader boards showing people who was the most responsive and least responsive." Now, supposedly, they love it.

Tom Loosemore, ex-of UpMyStreet and later the BBC, then dug in by defining "civic hacking" as "fixing democracy by using democracy's own existing, broken, rules." He laid out a cheeky five-step process:

How to do it:
1. Identify broken civic institution.
2. Liberate data from said institution.
3. Build civic tool too useful to turn off.
4. Leave for X years.
5. Watch institution adapt.

The rest of his talk reviewed the evolution of democracy tools in the UK. FaxYourMP evolved into WritetoThem.com in 2005. Meanwhile, in 2004 came TheyWorkForYou.com, mySociety's biggest success. The official "Hansard" parliamentary record is "about as useful as a kettle that you can't link to," Loosemore notes. So this band of civic hackers set out to liberate parliamentary data.

TheyWorkforYou's MP pages show their voting records, how responsive they are, what topics they are most talking about, and allow users to sign up for an email whenever they speak, etc. And about a half million use it every month.

According to Loosemore, "MPs hate it because it exposes what they actually do in Parliament." On the other hand, he noted, opposition leader David Cameron recently gave a speech saying how much he hated it and how useful it is. And then Cameron called for every local council in England to publish all of its data in structured formats.

Loosemore finished his remarks noting two new projects worth looking at: Tellthemwhatyouthink.org (not yet up UPDATED WITH .ORG LINK) and Whatdotheyknow.com, a tool to help users file and archive Freedom of Information requests.

Stefan Magdalinski of Moo.com then came up to talk about some less parochial projects. In 2005, he says, came FarmSubsidy.org, which showed who gets what from the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy. (My understanding is that this was in part inspired by the US-based Environmental Working Group's searchable database of farm subsidies here.) FarmSubsidy.org covers 1.5 million recipients of more than 46 billion euros in subsidies. Its creation set off a larger push for transparency across the European Union, with the results that by the end of 2009, the European commission will publish the names of the recipients of all subsidies.

The lesson from these EU-centered projects? Magdalinski says: "Global problems need global hacks." And now we get to the United Nations, and a little bit of creative information liberation.

"The UN is the world's de facto government," declares Magdalinski "It's broken. Its guardians are not held to account. Citizen scrutiny is the bugfix."

Apparently, all the sessions of the UN are published online, but the urls are obfuscated so you can't link to them. Even worse, the copyright notice on the UN site prevents users from even reading it online without the formal written permission of the UN. "But we've figured out how to get it," says Magdalinski. "At UNDemocracy.com you can read the documents, they've got useful urls, and it's all in a structured format."

All of this is the work of one maniacally dedicated civic hacker, Julian Todd, who has figured out how to turn all this inaccessible information into web gold. I met Julian last fall in England, and he's the kind of guy who thinks that it would be neat to create an application that would text you the hardest question you could ask a public figure, in the event you found yourself face-to-face with, say, Henry Kissinger. In a similar vein, Julian has been building UNDemocracy in the hopes that more people will pay attention to what is happening in the UN and perhaps ask more pertinent questions of their own leaders' behavior there.

If you go to a country page, you can see, for example, how often the country has voted in the minority. Magdalinski noted, "People in the UN don't think anyone is watching. You can see all kinds of horse-trading going on."

What's needed next for UNDemocracy? The xml data needs to be imported into a relational database. Someone needs to make a nice front end that is more accessible. And then others can create tools for action, like "FaxYourUNRep."

I don't know if this can really fix what ails the UN, as this Guardian article on Julian and crew suggests. But I completely endorse the spirit of this initiative. When an institution is broken, more citizen scrutiny can only help fix it.

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