The road to transparency and accountability starts with access to information, but for government, it’s not as easy as just making the information available. There are several things to consider along the way. First of all, government produces different types of information, each of which can accomplish different things if it’s released. Second, you have to understand the difference between information that is accessible (I have it!) and information that is usable (I can do something with it!). Third is the importance of minimizing the restrictions on information when it is released, and the last one is how the information gets to you.
Government information comes in all shapes and sizes. Your government produces information about itself (like laws), for itself (like statistics and scientific research), and by itself (like meeting minutes, emails, and spending data). Each has the potential to generate value when made public, but like the different types of information, there are different types of value. These include improving transparency, enhancing research, and promoting economic development.
When released, the information itself is then accessible, but is it usable? The difference may seem subtle at first, but take a moment to think about it. Accessible means the information is available, that is you can see it or touch or play with it. Usable however, relates to the format that it is released in. Usable means you can actually do something with it – maybe even something important! For example, if you want to put some accessible information into a computer program to analyze it automatically, but it’s only available as a pdf (or even worse, as a print publication!), you will have to do a lot of data entry before the information is usable. Now consider this problem if you want to regularly update your analysis when new information is released. It’s just not practical!
When thinking about information more broadly, not just what has been released, there is a concern about what restrictions are placed on that data. Now there are some perfectly valid reasons why your government doesn’t want to share the information with you that you paid for, but there are also a lot of time when these appropriate restrictions are applied in an un-appropriate way. These restrictions can take many different forms, including legal, financial, technical, physical, and our favorite: “obfuscatory.” Understanding the complications or necessity behind each of these restrictions enables a better targeted information access plan.
Finally, if your government is going to get the information TO you, it needs to consider how to do that the most effective way. This requires an understanding not just of how the information may be used, but also of who is most likely to use it. When you know who is going to use it (who the audience is), then it’s possible to figure out how to reach them in a meaningful way. For example, if you are the intended audience and you don’t have Internet access, then releasing the information online will not get it to you. Similarly, releasing massive data sets meant for statistical analysis as a printed publication would be particularly ineffective.
Understanding the basic principles of information access will help you and your government to get along better, and isn’t that really what we all want?