are we preparing our students for open government?

Recently, Edd Dumbill of O’Reilly Media referenced 2011 as the “coming out” year for data. Several techies, futurists, journalists, and bloggers support his claim, arguing that information, always an important player in democracy, is becoming increasingly relevant. Social technologies allow us to distribute data in ways that we couldn’t before and this information exchange encourages increased engagement in civic life.

I’m currently exploring how we define and teach community in preK-12 schools and I’m starting to consider how data, technology, and community intersect.  According to Forbes writer Adam Thierer “citizens and democracy benefit when we increase the flow of information and ensure citizens are more fully informed about the world around them – especially their local communities.” Thierer was commenting on the Knight Commission’s report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age and an FCC report which explores “the future of media and information needs of citizens and communities.”  These reports and others offer recommendations on how communities can rethink their information health i.e. how much data is available to citizens and the ways in which they can use the information to better their quality of life.

If data is central to community health (and I believe we are still determining to what extent it is) then students who know how to access and leverage data (and, if it’s not available, find ways to make it available) can participate more fully in public life. Does current curriculum reflect this and, if not, how can we bridge the gap?

If you build it, will they come?

“Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.” That was a comment made by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer at last week’s House Hackathon where a group of Facebook developers met with members of the House to explore government transparency and technology. The attendees discussed applications and platforms that make legislative data available to the public and allow for greater participation inside the beltway by people outside the beltway.  For example, Likeocracy allows citizens to comment on a bill. Another application, MADISON, allows for “crowdsourced legislative markup.” While Congress has a long way to go there is considerable momentum behind open government and the possibilities it holds for increased engagement.

Similarly, civic applications for local governance and city life are growing in popularity. These apps use data, such as transportation records, to provide information to citizens in real time, helping them use their city more wisely and allow for greater information exchange between citizens and city council. For example, the City of Boston recently introduced Citizens Connect which allows residents to file complaints by snapping a photo of a problem and sending it to city hall along with a geo-tag.  In the FAST Company article, Civic Apps Could Redefine The Way Citizens Interact With Cities, Clay Dillow argues that “while some might feel that engaging communities through handheld devices may erode civic bonds, apps that connect citizens to civil servants and elected officials could play an important role going forward. They have the potential to save communities bundles of money by making city services more efficient, as well as to boost community engagement by simply making it easier.”

The tools certainly exist or will exist, but are we putting the cart before the horse?

Does open equal engagement?

This begs the question: are we ready to use these applications? I don’t think that open access directly equates to increased engagement and I’m grateful to organizations like the Knight Foundation and Sunlight Foundation for trying to connect the dots. Frankly schools have never been great at teaching citizenship and adding technology to the concept makes it all the more complicated. In a recent blog post Katrin Verclas, co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org, suggested that we need to reexamine the education system in order to prepare society for open government:

“We have a problem in the way that we educate youth. What we need is a way for people to connect and know how to collaborate; to know how to lead at times and follow at others. We don’t necessarily know this coming out of the education system that we have. The way we operate in the world is less through organizations and more through a mutual aid model that existed a long time ago. As organizations, governments and institutions become less influential, we haven’t yet figured out how to connect effectively and get stuff done.”

Not only do students need to know how to access and understand data they need to understand how to act on the information, navigate the complex systems of community and government, and use the advanced tools and networks at their disposal. I strongly believe we need to not just reconsider but reimagine how we teach citizenship in order for open government and open cities to be successful. To that end, a more inclusive conversation is necessary about what engagement looks like in light of the data and tools available. By inclusive I’m referring to conversations that bring more educators, students, and parents into the Hackathons, meetups, and unconferences.

Having lead outreach for a major national website project I can’t stress enough that more outreach now the better users will be in the future. Despite the open government focus the House Hackathon was behind closed doors to most Americans. There are a lot of us who don’t read blogs or tweet or participate in social media other than for social reasons; there are many of us who will go unaware of the possibilities. Conversations about open government need to infiltrate our schools; programmers, foundations, politicos, and non-profits in the trenches of this amazing  work need to make outreach a priority sooner rather than later.

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