Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

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, 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 in 2005. Meanwhile, in 2004 came, 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: (not yet up UPDATED WITH .ORG LINK) and, a tool to help users file and archive Freedom of Information requests.

Stefan Magdalinski of then came up to talk about some less parochial projects. In 2005, he says, came, 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.) 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 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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.


wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.