Gov2.0 transparency: An enabler for collaborative sense-making

Recently my town has adopted two innovative web services that I’ve featured on my podcast: CrimeReports.com, which does what its name suggests, and Granicus.com, which delivers video of city council meetings along with synchronized documents.

You can see the Keene instance of CrimeReports here, and our Granicus instance here.

I’m delighted to finally become a user of these systems that I’ve advocated for, written about, and podcasted. I’m also eager to move forward. We’re still only scratching the surface of what Net-mediated democracy can and should become.

In the case of CrimeReports, the next step is clear: Publish the data. It’s nice to see pushpins on a map, but when you’re trying to answer questions — like “Are we having a crime wave?” — you need access to the information that drives the map. Greg Whisenant, the founder of CrimeReports.com, says he’d be happy to publish feeds. But so far the cities that hire him to do canned visualizations of crime data aren’t asking him to do so, because most people aren’t yet asking their city governments to provide source data. So a few intrepid hackers, like Ben Caulfield here in Keene, are reverse-engineering PDF files to get at the information. Check out Ben’s remixed police blotter — it’s awesome. Now imagine what Ben might accomplish if he hadn’t needed to move mountains to uncover the data.

In the case of Granicus, I’m reminded of this item from last year: Net-enhanced democracy: Amazing progress, solvable challenges. The gist of that item was that:

  • It’s amazing to be able to observe the processes of government.

  • It’s still a challenge to make sense of them.

  • Tools that we know how to build and use can help us meet that challenge.

Check out, for example, last week’s Keene city council meeting. Scroll down to an item labeled 2. Ordinance O-2009-21. In this clip, the council agrees to amend the city code for residential real estate tax exemptions. I wish I could link you directly to that portion of the video, which begins at 34:11, in the same way that I can link you to the associated document. But more broadly, I wish that a citizen who tunes in could understand — and help establish — the context for this amendment.

Here’s the new language:

Sec. 86-29 Residential real estate tax exemptions and credits

With regard to property tax exemptions, the city hereby adopts the provisions of RSA 72:37 (Blind); RSA 72:37-b (Disabled); RSA 72:38-b (Deaf or Severely Hearing Impaired); RSA 72:39-a (Elderly); RSA 72:62 (Solar); RSA 72:66 (Wind); and RSA 72:70 (Wood).

With regard to property tax credits, the city hereby adopts the provisions of RSA 72:28, II, (Optional Veterans’ tax credit); RSA 72:29-a , II, (Surviving Spouse); and RSA 72:35, I-a, (Optional Tax Credit for Service-Connected total disability).

In this case, I just happen to know a bit of this amendment’s backstory. Earlier this year I found out — only thanks to a serendipitous encounter with a city councilor at a social event — that my wood gasifier qualified me for an exemption. This was the first such exemption, and to my knowledge is still the only one granted.

If I hadn’t gone through that experience, though, the video clip and its associated document would mean nothing to me. There would be no way to make a connection between state law on the one hand, and a documented case study on the other.

On the next turn of the crank, I hope that services like Granicus will enable us to make those connections. Seeing the process of government in action is a great step forward. Now we need to be able to use links and annotations to help one another make sense of that process.

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