I’m not organizing Open Data Day DC this year — these three reasons won’t surprise you.
Civic technology can’t go on like it’s 1999.
In 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 I was the lead organizer of Open Data Day DC, a two-day hackathon and training event in Washington, DC on the same day as more than 200 other Open Data Day events throughout the world.
This is the first year in a long time that I won’t be running an Open Data Day event.
Reason #1: Bedfellows.
You know who else likes open data? President Trump.
Maybe not climate data. Maybe not the White House visitor logs. But Trump has included transparency and data in five of his 29 presidential directives so far:
Executive Order 13767, January 25, 2017: Sec. 14. Government Transparency. The Secretary shall, on a monthly basis and in a publicly available way, report statistical data on aliens apprehended at or near the southern border using a uniform method of reporting by all Department of Homeland Security components, in a format that is easily understandable by the public.
Executive Order 13768, January 25, 2017 Sec. 16. Transparency. To promote the transparency and situational awareness of criminal aliens in the United States, the Secretary and the Attorney General are hereby directed to collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports on the following: (a) the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated …; and (c) the immigration status of all convicted aliens incarcerated in State prisons and local detention centers throughout the United States.
Executive Order 13769, January 27, 2017: Sec. 10. Transparency and Data Collection. (a) To be more transparent with the American people…the Secretary of Homeland Security…shall…collect and make publicly available…(i) information regarding the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses …; (ii) … who have been radicalized after entry into the United States and engaged in terrorism-related acts…and (iii) information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals
Executive Order 13773, February 9, 2017: Sec. 3. (g) in the interest of transparency and public safety … issue reports at least once per quarter detailing convictions in the United States relating to transnational criminal organizations and their subsidiaries;
Executive Order 13777, February 24, 2017: Sec. 3. (a) Each agency shall establish a Regulatory Reform Task Force … (d) [which] shall evaluate existing regulations…and make recommendations to the agency head regarding their repeal, replacement, or modification … (v) … in particular those regulations that rely in whole or in part on data, information, or methods that are not publicly available or that are insufficiently transparent to meet the standard for reproducibility
(So that’s four uses of data to stigmatize immigrants and one as an excuse to deconstruct inconvenient parts of the government. [Update: The new immigration E.O. on March 6 repeats the same transparency provision of the January 27 E.O., increasing the counts accordingly.])
Need I say it? The President of this country also plans to create privately-run detention centers for Latinxs who have not been convicted of a crime, has implemented an immigration policy that denies entry to Muslims (American citizens included), is denying that there were attacks against Jews (in lock step with Nazi Holocaust denialism) and simply ignores attacks against brown people, denies the right of transgender people to be in public spaces, seeks to dismantle government programs that help those most in need while expanding the only part of the government that can’t be taken away from him, labels accountability and policy opposition as un-American, speaks only in dog whistles, and has weaponized twitter against truth. Sweden. Birtherism. Did I miss anything? (That’s rhetorical.)
To be sure, open data has always been a policy of convenience. President Obama sought to be remembered for Data.gov while also opposing improvements to the Freedom of Information Act. (Also mass surveillance, the classified torture report, etc. etc.) But while Obama may have been hypocritical, the open data efforts throughout the executive branch were carried out mostly by career civil servants and those efforts were overwhelmingly sincere (even if sometimes done reluctantly).
Based on what we’ve seen so far under Trump, that’s no longer the case. The executive orders already use the language of transparency to normalize the use of data as a part of a political agenda — let alone that the data in the executive orders have little to do with transparency and nothing to do with accountability.
My point isn’t that Trump has co-opted and corrupted transparency and open data and that we shouldn’t do those things anymore (though he is on the path of doing so). Rather:
If we don’t separate methods from outcomes then our work to help people will be indistinguishable from the work of those who seek to hurt.
Open data is a method, not a goal. Open data practitioners have had the luxury till now of not needing to be overly precise that their goals were, typically, civic innovation. We can’t take for granted anymore that our goals are shared or that they are going to be understood by others if we don’t articulate them. We can’t continue to hold “transparency” and “open data” events anymore and expect to be understood as actually being civic innovators when others more powerful than us are using the same terms and techniques to hurt people.
GovTrack now actually uses open government data
tl;dr — I got the open data I’d been requesting for 15 years from the U.S. Congress.
(I previously wrote about separating open data methods from norms. See the end of the post above ^.)
So to be clear: I still think open data is useful! It’s an important tool we have at our disposal to share knowledge. But I’ve done enough events in my life about a tool and not enough about outcomes.
Reason #2: These aren’t the methods that I want to teach.
It took five years for me to figure out what we were actually doing at Open Data Day DC:
Our event was professional development for public interest technologists. With about 300 participants in the final years — including coders, advocates, data scientists, civil servants, and communicators — we worked together on hands-on projects and workshops to grow our skills in civic hacking, with open data as a lens.
With my co-organizers over the years — Eric Mill, Katherine Townsend, Sam Lee, Julia Bezgacheva, Dmitry Kachaev, and Katie Filbert — and our frequent partners The World Bank and Development Seed/Mapbox, and our many workshop leaders (all volunteers, thank you!), I know we really were very successful.
But what we were successful at teaching is, perhaps, no longer what needs to be taught. It’s not what I want to teach, at least.
If the goal is to train public interest civic hackers, then let’s start by examining what we should be teaching rather than starting with open data as axiomatically included in the program. Let’s not hold open data events because we can, but only if we should. If I were holding an event for civic hackers today, open data is not where I would start.
Reason #3: Are we here to feel good or to get things done?
Civic tech events — including Open Data Day DC — have a tradition of bringing a celebratory, feel-good attitude to our work. How awesome is it that we can play with super-important data that makes lives better!
The reality is that most civic tech efforts don’t make any lives better — except for the the civic hackers’. Last year I wrote about why that’s fine:
Why we hack
I’ll be among the first to say that not everything is hearts and flags in the world of civic tech. A decade of inflated…
But we’ve got to put the feel-good attitude aside sometimes.
The people who we are trying to help — they’re not feeling good.
There are also plenty of problems within the civic tech community that we’ve been avoiding talking about for a decade. (I would acknowledge the colleagues who have shared some of these problems with me but I don’t want to put them on the spot.)
If there’s not even a little pain involved, we’re not doing public interest work. The Jewish tradition of tzedakah, or charity, is instructive here. Mensches will ask: How much charity is enough to meet the requirement of tzedakah? There’s a line of thought that it should feel like a sacrifice. e.g. You should donate to charity as much as it takes so that you have to give something up.
Public interest and civic technology work have to involve a little bit of sacrifice. When we get together, it can’t always be a party. It can’t always be easy.
If I run another civic tech event, there will be some pain.
I’m brainstorming a civic tech event for later this year. If you’re interested in finding out more, please let me know.