Transparency Camp ’09: Community-Level Transparency Efforts, & Designing for Transparency

On February 28, 2009, Rhiza Labs CTO Michael Higgins and CEO Josh Knauer presented at Transparency Camp ’09 on creating public information systems that support truly public decision-making. Josh focused on community-level transparency efforts; Mike focused on incorporating transparency into the design process. View Mike’s presentation, and notes from Josh’s, below:

Designing for Transparency

Presented by Mike Higgins at Transparency Camp ’09, February 29, 2009


  1. At Rhiza Labs we build web applications that help communities share and understand their data. I wanted to share a couple of quick thoughts from our experiences. The overall theme is that building useful tools for transparency takes more than technology. It also takes careful design: especially focusing on an understanding of the different incentives people bring to the process.
  2. I come from both an engineering and design background, but my core skills and mindset are engineering focused. Engineers tend to be very idealistic, and very focused on realizing their ideas through technology. What we have to realize is that great technology is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for sharing data. People have to be able to share, but they have to want to share too.
    Mr. Rogers is in favor, so given the opportunity, won’t everyone want to share their data„ Not necessarily.
  3. A project to help conservation scientists share data with the conservation community: slam dunk, right„ Scientists who have data worry that it will be misunderstood. Scientists worry about losing a competitive edge. Shared data might be highly technical and hard to use. Users who need data may have trouble finding it and trusting it.
  4. I won’t name names, but this happens over and over. You build a wonderful system that helps an organization share its data. Right before it’s supposed to go live, someone in the organization PANICS and tries to stop the whole thing.
  5. What to do„ No quick fix for social problems. Technology with good design can help! Use user-centered design techniques. Understand your users and stakeholders. Provide ways for data providers to track use. Make the system accessible for many skill levels. Provide a feedback loop to improve data. Make the system beautiful, even if the data is ugly! Look for non-technical incentives.
  6. Come find us!

Community-Level Transparency Efforts

Presented by Josh Knauer at Transparency Camp ’09, February 29, 2009


Notes from the group discussion:

  • Where are there good initiatives„ DC, Philly, Seattle, San Francisco – big places with big budgets.
  • Why are community-level transparency initiatives important„
    • Accountability (metrics of success), representation, impact on daily life, community engagement, deterring corruption, making governing easier, bringing attention to the local level, empowering citizens through participation to be data producers and not just data consumers, maintaining the enforcement of laws about public officials’ conduct, promoting participation in service allocation
  • Challenges to Community-Level Transparency Initiatives
    • Defensiveness and territoriality (disintermediation), lack of political will, fear of: the unknown, replacement, exposure, being watched, funding, lack of expertise, lack of demand, no training of public staff, lack of inclusion of non-tech savvy citizens, adoption barriers to new technology, obsolete IT systems and management resistance to their replacement, lack of finances
  • Other Community-Level Transparency Initiatives
    • Sunshine Week, local data promoting community journalism
    • IVR (interactive voice response), a Peruvian initiative to bring new media to non-wired places via cell phones
    • Plain Politics – decoding legalese into plain English