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The Rise of the Count(er) Culture: Notes on Transparency Camp 2012

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, April 30 2012

Transparency Camp 2012: Session Wall (Photo: Micah L. Sifry)

Last weekend in Washington DC, about five hundred intrepid reporters, influential insiders, bloggers, media mavens, and a handful of glitterati came together to swap tales of their bouts with the powerful, impress each other with their savvy, trade gossip, and have a good time.

No, I'm not talking about the annual White House Correspondents Association shindig, which has grown from a fancy dinner into an all-out onslaught of glittery parties, complete with Hollywood celebrities and too much elated self-congratulation by a media industry that seems to be less-and-less about anything other than itself.

I'm talking about Transparency Camp, the Sunlight Foundation's annual two-day unconference for open government. (Full disclosure: Along with Andrew Rasiej, I helped set up the Sunlight Foundation and am one of its senior advisers.) Now in its fifth incarnation, TCamp has more than doubled in size from the 200 people who showed up back in the spring of 2009.

And it's matured in at least two other ways: First, it's become completely normal for government insiders to attend, present, and shmooze their way through the whole event. Back in 2009, I remember vividly how attendees were astonished to meet with the handful of government workers who took time off from their weekend to show up clad in jeans and sneakers, and indeed the surprise seemed to be as much on their side as well, as they discovered a vibrant community of geeky outsiders who wanted open up government for the benefit of all--including the people on the inside.

This year at Transparency Camp, not only did newly installed White House Chief Technology Office Todd Park give one of his trademark effusive speeches on the power of open data, it was easy to spot people from a variety of agencies including the Treasury Department, the FCC, EPA, NASA, the World Bank, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, and Congress.

Second, the people attending now spread far beyond the Beltway. About forty international transparency activists were on hand, some coming for their second year in a row. And lots of local governments and issue advocacy groups were represented, a sign that the idea of using tech and data to make government work better is spreading beyond the proverbial early adopter crowd.

I will leave it to my colleague Nick Judd, who also attended TCamp12, to report on the many intriguing projects that were featured at the event. As I talked to people, I was interested in a different but related story--I wanted to know how people came to think of themselves as transparency activists, or civic hackers, or opengov advocates. In other words, I wanted to know how this crazy idea got into their heads enough that they would give up a beautiful spring weekend not to rub shoulders with the famous and powerful, but to commune with each other.

Doing Work That Counts
In 1969, Theodore Roszak's book "The Making of a Counter Culture" not only helped explain the 1960s youth rebellion to an older generation, it may have actually coined the term "counterculture." That is, he argued, there was a connection between the hippies dropping out of the workforce and the political activists protesting Vietnam, segregation and other issues; they were united in their opposition to technocratic modern society, and in that rejection of mainstream social values they defined an alternative culture.

Writers from John Markoff to Fred Turner to Howard Rheingold have explored how one branch of that counterculture--led by pioneers like Stewart Brand, who hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, founded the Whole Earth Catalog, and then started the WELL ("Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link"), an early influential online community--influenced the values of the emerging software industry. You can see the counterculture in the hairstyles of many of the Internet's founding engineers--Dave Clark, John Gilmore, Jon Postel, Richard Stallman were all longhairs at one point, and John Perry Barlow wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead. They hated technocracy and centralized power: "We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code," Dave Clark said memorably at an early meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force. And they built something that no government or corporation would have ever consciously invented--the Internet--that no one owns, everyone can use and anyone can improve (as Doc Searls and David Weinberger put it).

Now, at places like Transparency Camp, we're glimpsing the emergence of a new culture, one that isn't inherently out to "Fight the Man" or disassociate itself from the mainstream of society, but that is aimed at making democracy and government work better. For the fun of it, you might say that this counterculture is a "count culture." It's powered by our ability to count everything (data); our ability to publish to the web (what you say can count); and a desire to make sure that everyone counts as full members of society. That's what I heard as I asked TCamp attendees why they were there:

  • Matthew Hall, a political science student from Southwestern University in Texas, said, "In political science, we study what's wrong with government, not how to fix it. Here we're looking at ways to fix it."
  • Janette Scobey of the Johnson County (KS) Election Office said she was there because she was motivated by "the radical idea of giving our information to the public."
  • Shauna Gordon-McKeon, a member of the Sunlight Meetup group in Boston, said she was a programmer who was there because "sure there's some good I can put my skills to." (Not everyone in the local bureaucracy, she noted, embraced that notion.)
  • Kamal Jain of Lowell, Massachusetts, talked about running for state auditor on a platform centered on transparency. "I'm a numbers guy. I work in operations. And I always looked at people crying about the state budget without knowing what was actually in it." Even though he lost his bid for office, he takes some credit for the new state auditor's policy of putting Massachusetts' checkbook online. "Forty percent of state spending was offline until now," he noted with pride.
  • Elizabeth Sebian and Jeff Schuler of the Cleveland Coalition talked about how the downfall of a corrupt county commissioner ("Cuyahoga" means "crooked," they pointed out) has created the opening for a growing local conversation about how to clean up their county. Not only is the new county executive posted contract information online, the Cleveland Civic Hacking Meetup is working on developing an app that would help the public give government officials direct feedback.
  • Juan Velez, a self-described "recovering journalist" in Chicago, showed off how their Open City group had turned newly available public data into a detailed guide called ("open government--imagine that!"), a budget visualization app called "Look at Cook" that shows where all $3 billion of the county's budget flows, and how they reverse-engineered a city-built tool called Plow Tracker into a real-time snowstorm map called Clear Streets. Now he's working on a for-profit project called Purple Binder that aims to be a "Yelp for the social safety net."
  • Jakub Górnicki of the ePantswo legislative monitoring site in Poland, said he started out in journalism and PR, but that open data gave him and his coconspirators the opportunity to reach people in a better way: "We can make a change by giving information easily to the people. When they look things up they are amazed by what they find."

"There's a huge opportunity for political change behind open data," declared Daniela Silva of the Brazilian Transparencia Hacker collective. She attended Transparency Camp West in 2009 and got so fired up by the experience that she started a local group that now numbers more than 900 civic hackers. They've scraped local 311 data and built related sites, but their proudest project is the "Transparency Bus," a crowdfunded vehicle that travels around the country teaching locals how to add information to Open Street Map, how to access their own technology and write their own laws.

"We need one of those here in the United States," I heard someone murmur next to me as we looked at Silva's slides of the happy young hackers sitting outside of their decked out bus. Is it time for a new Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, one driven by data and powering the revival of civic engagement? Ken Kesey and his merry band of pranksters might well agree.