Why journalists need to get behind the #opendata movement

Photo credit: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg

As a young reporter I went each week to the police station to copy the crime log. If there were patterns of burglaries or violent crimes, I did full stories. But the crime log itself was news. I carefully typed each item, no matter how small, on my manual typewriter.  At 2:30 a.m. Thursday, a naked man was seen walking down Miller Avenue…  The crime log was a “standing feature” in the weekly Mill Valley Record, as they are to this day in many American newspapers.

The log was public information. Police could keep investigations confidential, but the crimes themselves were public record. In the digital age, that kind of data can be released directly to everyone on the World Wide Web. Through our Technology for Engagement initiative, in fact, Knight Foundation supports governments and others that want to better inform and engage communities.

Many journalists aren’t paying attention to how governments are opening up data. Part of that is cultural. Governments do keep secrets. As the amount of information grows, so do the secrets.  Good journalists, operating ethically, try to reveal the secrets that should be public. We often find ourselves, with the help of organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, suing the government to force it to obey its own open records laws. In addition, news organizations and state freedom of information groups tenaciously demand better open government laws.

Journalists see so many efforts to hide public information that we start to think everyone in government is a scoundrel. That’s just not so. Governments are becoming big digital age publishers. Today the city of Mill Valley publishes far more civic information than its long-gone weekly newspaper ever could.  Rather than slamming it as “not good enough,” or ignoring it, journalists should figure out how to become experts on emerging forms of public data. We should encourage and assist government when it does the right thing. Strong flows of data are the beginning of good journalism, and of public engagement that solves problems.

That brings us to another reason journalists don’t pay attention to data. It’s technical and we are word people. Unfortunately, a lot of us can’t pass this basic math test. Computer-assisted reporting was seen for too long as a special skill taught only by Investigative Reporters and Editors. But now all reporting is computer-assisted reporting. Newsies that embrace data, from the Texas Tribune to ProPublica to Washington Post, find rich returns in readership.

If you’re a journalist, here are some things about information flows I bet you didn’t know:

  1. Since its launch, the Code for America Commons has grown from a small collaborative experiment in civic innovation to a thriving database with some 620 apps being used in 242 cities.
  2. Cities like Philadelphia are creating “chief data officer” positions, folks who could be a journalist’s best friend.
  3. A growing community of innovators are sharing Digital Citizenship successes like the game Community PlanIt had in Boston, where they got more people involved in the schools.

Does this mean we should no longer care about secrets? Not at all. We still need campaigns like Sunshine Week, the annual event funded by Knight Foundation and backed by news leaders, showing how open government helps all Americans. We absolutely need to keep suing and calling for better laws.

But carrots and sticks together might be a better way to move the most stubborn animals. It’s a shame that so many journalism organizations are still “old school.” They support the philosophy of open government and the values of great journalism. They are ready to fight the good fight. But they try to do it with lousy web sites and no mobile apps. Never mind liberating information by collaborating with partners like the Sunlight Foundation, the Digital Library of America, the Knight-Mozilla fellowships and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.

It’s refreshing to see a few groups trying new things, like the Reporters Committee with their mobile app helping people who want access to public meetings or records. But that’s not enough. We need to agree that the only real solution to freedom of information is technological. Liberals are a little more liberal with public records. Conservatives are a bit more conservative. Yet neither side releases more than half of what it should. Government systems need to be redesigned. All public information must be public from the moment it enters the system. Since these are computer systems, that means freedom of information advocates, along with journalists in general, need to be tech savvy.

I can hear some of my old reporter friends moaning. It’s the Rime of the Ancient Mariner all over again, they’d say, except it’s about seas of information, and the line goes Data, data, everywhere, but not a thought to think. I disagree. The new world holds as much for journalists as any before. If I were a reporter in Mill Valley today, I’d try to know everything about city data: what was online, if it was accurate, what wasn’t there and why. Rather than recreate it, I’d be an honest curator of it, adding only when things were missing. The most important thing I’d do is figure out how engage the town in a conversation about what it all means. I’d try to connect the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas of a better world.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation

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