Beyond Transparency

Today, after two years of service, I’m wrapping up at the Sunlight Foundation. It’s a great goodbye— I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish there, but my job there is done. I’m not an investigative reporter, after all, and there’s only so much watchdogging I can take. There’s much more to be done in this field than demonstrating the novelty of government data, and making government more accountable. But there’s also another side to the problem.

Anybody that’s seen me speak knows I can’t stop talking about Recovery.gov and why it was a failure. Part of that failure lies with a big communications misstep. How government releases data, in what format, and how often is only half of the whole problem. The other half?

People aren’t used to having this much access to information. Cheaply produced junk food has created an obesity problem in the United States, and cheaply produced media is creating an information obesity problem in the United States. Bytes are far cheaper and easier to consume than calories, and I think we’ve got to, as a society, start talking about the other part of this equation: how should people’s information consumption habits change in order for transparency to have a full effect.We forget that if people aren’t looking for it or demanding it, that’s one problem, but not knowing that they need it and not knowing what to do with it once they get it is significant, too. People have poor information diets. A public that can easily be whipped up into a frenzy by folks like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann are equally to blame for that failure as the chairman himself.

The transparency movement has relied on gatekeepers — journalists — to get their point across. The hope is, that with enough light shone on a problem, people will eventually see what’s happening, rise up, and make good or better decisions at the voting booth. Now though, we’re living in a world where more noise is getting created than signal, even by the journalists themselves. So it’s time to start thinking about information dieting— that our information consumption isn’t something chosen for us by those who write books or bring us the news, but by the consumer of the information. And we need to start figuring out what healthy selectivity looks like.

If I had to break it down into Pollanesque statements, it’d go something like this:

Learn. Not too much. Mostly facts.

What I want to do, outside of Sunlight, is explore the demand side of the transparency equation. Sunlight’s doing a great job of getting data online, but thus far the public doesn’t seem to care most of the time, and when they do, it’s when they’re politically charged up. Through this blog, I’m hoping we can figure out what a healthy information diet looks like, and drive awareness that watching Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann is about as bad for you as the new KFC Double Down.

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