Having been described as the Steve Jobs of the open government movement, Sunlight Foundation Co-Founder Ellen Miller, too, is all about the vision — the vision of a government that uses new technology and social media to create a much more “give and take” relationship with citizens. “Technology is absolutely key to making that happen,” Miller said, noting that a lot of data is available, but it’s hard to find or becomes available six months to a year after the fact. “We just don’t think that’s what 21st-century transparency looks like.”
Transparency, Miller said, would involve making any data — any information that would not compromise national security or personal privacy — open and available in ways that the public, developers and small businesses could access and use in meaningful ways. “The default would be not to withhold data, but to open data and make it accessible online and in real time,” she said. “We think it changes the tone, the tenor and even the kind of conversations that we could have. All that leads to a more accountable and responsible government.”
When a controversial and unintentional instance of transparency in government occurred in November 2010 after an Army intelligence analyst allegedly leaked 260,000 diplomatic cables that were published on the WikiLeaks website, Miller and Co-Founder Mike Klein co-wrote a blog post in response. While many readers saw this response as ambiguous, Miller ultimately said WikiLeaks is an illustration of technology’s power when used responsibly to inject fact, data and information into the discussion.
“We do not endorse making any information available online that jeopardizes national security,” she said, adding that the foundation neither can nor would judge whether the released cables have done that. Her biggest concern is government’s potential overreaction to WikiLeaks. “We believe very strongly that government has the right to withhold data and should in cases of real national security or personal privacy,” she said. “But those should be exception, not the rule.”
Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.