Transparency isn’t Bunk

Online government transparency projects have reached the [hype cycle](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle) where proponents and pundits get disillusioned, and start to wonder if the whole thing has any value at all.
So [Aaron Swartz](http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/transparencybunk), of Watchdog, theinfo, and many other excellent projects, has decided that ‘transparency is bunk’:

For too long we’ve been funding transparency projects on the model of if-we-build-it-they-will-come: that we don’t know what transparency will be useful for, but once it’s done it will lead to all sorts of exciting possibilities. Well, we’ve built it. And they haven’t come. The only success story its proponents can point to is that transparency projects have bred even more transparency projects. I’m done working on watchdog.net; I’m done hurting America. It’s time to give old-fashioned narrative journalism a try.

Aaron’s strawman here is the idea that just making information available will have people investigations rather than watching soaps. Which is, well, obvious. This stuff was always going to be mainly used by the usual lobbyists, hacks, and campaigners, plus a small crowd of obsessive amateurs. That’s how it feeds into journalism and politics. At best, as with mysociety projects, ease-of-use can broaden the circle of people who would look at official data.
Likewise [Cory Doctorow](http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/29/cory-doctorow-police-transparency) has figured out that speaking truth to power achieves little by itself, in particular about police misbehaviour at last year’s climate camp:

And here’s where transparency breaks down. We’ve known about all this since last August – seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers – it was everywhere.
And yet … nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account.

Again, this shouldn’t be a shock to anybody who has ever been involved in a political campaign. The truth doesn’t change anything until it is pointed at an election, or a law-court, or at influencing somebody in power.
[Evgeny Morozov](http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/node/17241) has a decently calming reaction to all this, but to me the short answer is that sites collecting government data are tools rather than end-products, which aren’t much use without further work to build stories out of the raw facts.

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