NGOs as “sunglasses?”
At CAP’s Internet Advocacy Roundtable on transparency, Bill Allison mentions that even if data is available from Congress, the GAO, etc., it often takes help from NGOs to interpret, standardize, aggregate the data for people to be able to make connections and glean the benefit of the knowledge.
Group’s like The Sunlight Foundation, where Bill works, are harnessing the Internet’s power to collect information and literally open a window into it on your desktop.
But is raw data, even standardized, well-coded, cross-referenced data, ultimately an opaque pearl before well-intended swine? Do real-people activists get the most out of simple information, or do they get infinitely more from the interpretation (or at least the organization of information) that real-people advocates and experts provide?
As I write, it becomes clear that all the panelists have been thinking about this. “People care more about issues than they do about money and politics” in particular, Dan Newman of MAPLight is saying. So MAPLight is organized around those issues.
GovernmentDocs.org is not just offering virtual reams and reams of PDFs, but a really good interface to browse the important docs, and, even more brilliantly, a very simple “Reviewer’s” interface that prompts anyone who offers to review with smart questions about each page and document that only a real person reading the page could answer. (We did similar chopping, indexing and OCR-ing when we set up the searchable database of torture documents released to the ACLU under FOIA.)
And Sarah Schacht explains how the newly-launched Knowledge As Power offers a function that will give readers an 8th Grade definition of any jargony legalistic word in a bill that they don’t understand – because no one would.
It’s exciting to see these groups and technologists using the net not just to get the raw information out into the sun, but to string the stakes for the vines, build the greenhouses and plow rows through it so that knowledge can grow from information and people can move through the field and pick fruit they can actually digest.