Open Government

Daniel Lathrop and Laurel R.T. Ruma

Beijing • Cambridge • Farnham • Köln • Sebastopol • Taipei • Tokyo

Open Government
by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel R.T. Ruma
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ISBN: 978-0-596-80435-0
1252004795

A SAMPLE OF THE CONTENTS OF OPEN
GOVERNMENT

Government As a Platform

Tim O’Reilly

Government of the People

Carl Malamud

gov->media->people

Dan Gillmor

Free and Open Source Adoption in Public Administrations

Carlo Daffara and Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona

Disrupting Washington’s Golden Rule

Ellen Miller

All Your Data Belongs to Us: Liberating Government Data

Jerry Brito

Case Study: GovTrak.us

Josh Tauberer

Current State of Government Data: Reality Check

Aaron Swartz

Following the Money Online

Edwin Bender

Applying Software Patterns to Government

Howard Dierking

Emergent Democracy

Charles Armstrong

Going 2.0: Why We Opted for Full Frontal Data Sharing

Sheila Krumholz

Deliberative Democracy

Douglas Schuler

Social Media Transforming the Government Inside and Out

Tim Koelkebeck

Why Open Digital Standards Matter in Government

Marco Fioretti

Case Study: Tweet Congress

Wynn Netherland and Chris McCroskey

Open Government and Open Society

Archon Fung and David Weil

Transparency, Privacy, and Responsibility

Jeff Jonas

“You Can Be the Eyes and Ears”: Barack Obama and the Wisdom of
Crowds

Micha Sifry

A Brief History of the Freedom of Information Act

Brant Houston

Visualizing Policy and Politicians

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas

Citizenship 2.0

Sarah Schacht

Moving to an Affirmative Right to Know

Gary Bass

My Data Can’t Tell You That

Bill Allison

Open Government GeoData

Andrew Turner

Why I Work for the Man (And Why You Should Too)

Matthew Burton

Entrepreneurial Insurgency: How the Minority Party Uses Social
Media to Reach a Majority of Americans

Nick Schaper

Two-Way Street: Government with the People

Mark Drapeau

CHAPTER ONE

Disrupting Washington’s Golden Rule
Ellen S. Miller

Washington’s golden rule is different from the one we all learned growing up: “Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you.” In fact, Washington’s golden rule—“He who has the
gold, rules”—works in opposite fashion.
That’s not news. The fact that big money drives government decisions, that it has created a
mercenary culture in which nearly everything appears to be for sale, has been true of our
nation since its founding. Whether it’s information, access to lawmakers and elected officials,
legislation, or government spending, an exclusive group of moneyed insiders have outsized
influence. There are, of course, many channels for money to influence outcomes, most notably
campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. There are also a multitude of ways this
group of insiders gets rewarded—contracts to consulting firms, special earmarks for
government spending, targeted tax breaks, and corporate subsidies. But the result is the same:
those who give, get. Ordinary people—“outsiders”—are excluded from this cozy little game.
But now there is a new challenge to this very old way of doing things.
With the rise of the Internet and the social Web, the outsiders are becoming “insiders”—or, to
be clearer, the barriers to entry are falling, the gatekeepers are losing their power to control
access, and thus the golden rule is being disrupted. Thomas Jefferson once remarked,
“Information is power.” In large part, the highly paid “insider” lobbyists in Washington work
to help their clients not just gain access to lawmakers, but perhaps as important, to shape,
obtain, and make sense of crucial government information. Lobbyists are the ones who can
get their hands on copies of proposed legislation hot off the printing press before anybody else.

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They can help craft language for an earmark funding a pet project and make sure it gets
sponsored by a lawmaker and dropped into some massive spending bill. They can interpret the
minutiae of some government agency’s contracting rules and shepherd a client through the
thicket. Indeed, the need for this kind of assistance has become so de rigueur that even state
and local governments sometimes have taken to hiring highly paid lobbyists to help them
negotiate the mysteries of Washington. With a government opaque to all but the “insiders,”
outsiders—read, ordinary people—rarely have a chance to engage.
In a generation that is growing up with the Internet, however, the “outsiders” have a different
kind of expectation. They expect information to be fully available 24/7, and they expect
technology to allow them to engage with their friends, communities, and elected officials. If
you can sit thousands of miles away from Washington, D.C., in a coffee shop with free WiFi
that you found via a few clicks on Google Maps; if you can then do simple searches about
particular healthcare statistics where you live, such as the number of people who lack
healthcare insurance and how much cash local hospitals and clinics are getting from Medicaid
and Medicare; if you can dig around to see how much campaign cash your senator and
representative have taken from the healthcare industry and how they have voted on key
healthcare issues—well then, you have essentially become your own lobbyist, gathering the
information you need to make your case to your elected representatives. If your lawmaker is
on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the next revolution in the social Web will be, you can
communicate directly with your representatives and hold them accountable for their actions.
This information shift works in both directions, by the way. Thanks to emerging technology,
lawmakers and government officials will have access to increasingly sophisticated tools that
help them aggregate and analyze the views of their constituents and connect directly to you.
They also will not need to rely as much on intermediaries for information on what people care
about. A systemic change in how Washington works is now possible.
We are only just beginning to see the potential benefits of this new age. James Madison, father
of the U.S. Constitution, wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the
means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge
will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm
themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” A more transparent government will not
be the panacea for all that ails us. Our democracy will remain as messy as the Founders
expected and ensured it would be. But in this revolution there is finally the potential to subvert
the “golden rule” of Washington—to turn government inside out.

The Bad Old Days: When Insiders Ruled
When it comes to transparency of information, there have never been any good old days. Even
now, as the Obama administration is laying out an ambitious transparency agenda, we are just
beginning to understand how little information is made available online—the modern-day
definition of transparency. But just as in the age of the automobile, it’s difficult to grasp what

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it was like planning a trip across the country by stagecoach and train, or how impossible it was
to get an idea to a faraway audience before the printing press. In the time of Twitter, Facebook,
YouTube, Google, and more, it’s easy to forget the really bad old days of truly opaque
government.
It helps to take a time machine back via the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Timeline
(http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/projects/transparency-timeline/). Much of the openness about
Congress’s doings that we now take for granted was hard to come by.
What were they talking about?
If you wanted to follow congressional debate but couldn’t make it to the nation’s capital
to see it in person, you were out of luck. It wasn’t until the 1820s that Congress made its
debates public, long after the fact, in the “Annals of Debates.” It was nearly 100 years after
the Declaration of Independence, in 1873, that Congress finally established the
Congressional Record. It would be another 122 years (1995) before the text became available
online for anybody with a computer and modem to access.
Who was giving them campaign cash?
Big campaign donors have always known how much money they gave to politicians—but
the rest of us didn’t. Although some scattershot rules required disclosure of limited
information about campaign contributions, it took the biggest political scandal of all time
—Watergate—for Congress to start disclosing comprehensive information about who was
funding campaigns. Until 1995, however, this information was available only in
cumbersome hardcopy files. In 2001, the U.S. Federal Elections Commission (FEC)
required House candidates to file campaign reports electronically. Even to this day, the
U.S. senators refuse to file their campaign finance records electronically. Instead, the FEC
has to take hardcopy records and have staff members type information into a database,
causing a substantial delay in transparency and at substantial cost to taxpayers.
Are they invested?
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that members of Congress began disclosing their personal
finances, including the gifts they received and travel they took on the dime of outside
sources. Even then, the information was available only in clunky paper formats. It would
have to wait until 2006, until the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) began making these
forms available in PDF format on its website. More recently, CRP has made them available
in searchable format.
Of course, it’s not just Congress that has specialized in opacity. Myriad government agencies,
at taxpayer expense, collect and produce dizzying amounts of data about our economy, food
and drug safety, and the environment—indeed, every aspect of our lives. Yet in the past, most
of this information remained piled up in dusty docket rooms deep inside cement edifices.
Taking this data and making it available at a high price for those that could pay became a highly
lucrative business.

DISRUPTING WASHINGTON’S GOLDEN RULE

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It was only a little more than a decade ago, for example, that the U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission (SEC) began making corporate financial data—annual reports and other filings—
available online. Before that, this information was the province of a small group of politically
connected database vendors. Carl Malamud, public domain advocate and founder of
Public.Resource.Org, essentially shamed the government into making this information
available. He did this by putting the information up on the Internet himself. Once the site
became popular, he told the SEC that he would take it down, but would first train the agency
on how to continue to provide the data itself. The SEC bowed to the public pressure he
marshaled, and now we have EDGAR, where anybody can look up corporate filings for free.
Malamud ran a similar campaign to get the U.S. patent office to put the text of patents online.

This Is the Mashable Now
In the past, it was a victory simply to get Congress and government agencies to disclose
information on paper. Then came the Internet, which particularly in its beginnings meant
doing a “paper-style” kind of disclosure—with unwieldy PDFs, for example. Now we’re in a
new era, with increasing amounts of information made available in raw, machine-readable
format. Every day, new experiments bloom that are helping to turn outsiders into insiders.
For years, CRP was a lonely voice, doing the hard work of collecting and coding campaign
contribution and lobbying data, and making it available online for reporters, researchers, and
activists. Now, thanks to support from Sunlight, CRP has made this data available via APIs and
downloadable databases so that anybody can take it, enhance it, and link it to other
information. Already, the group MAPLight.org has taken campaign finance data and mashed
it up with congressional votes so that anybody can quickly find out how money may have
influenced a lawmaker’s actions. Now, creative developers are creating new interfaces, such
as “Know thy Congressman” (a winner in the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America
contest), which combines CRP’s information on campaign contributions with data from
elsewhere on earmarks and biographical and legislative information. New venues bring this
information alive for different audiences. For example, remember during the 2008 elections
the wild popularity of The Huffington Post’s “Fundrace” feature, fueled directly from FEC
downloads, which people could use to look up who had given contributions to a particular
presidential candidate via an interactive map? Millions of people went to check on their
neighbors’ political giving histories.
What Malamud did for the SEC and the patent office, he also recently did for congressional
video. His campaign reached a tipping point after C-SPAN tried to stop House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi from posting C-SPAN hearing footage on her website. Bloggers, led by Malamud,
protested online. In March 2007, C-SPAN responded by liberalizing its copyright policy and
opening its archives. The result is that now bloggers, citizen journalists, and anyone can post
online any federally sponsored event covered by C-SPAN without fear of copyright reprisals,
allowing websites such as MetaVid.org to focus more on the application layer, building

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interfaces for remixing, contextualizing, and participating with the audio/video media assets
of our government. As a result, it’s now possible for anyone to find, annotate, tag, clip, and
display a snippet of video from the floor of Congress of lawmakers speaking on a particular bill
or topic.
Providing this kind of information isn’t just an exercise in entertainment. It helps citizens
become more involved and hold government accountable. In 2005, a coalition of bloggers
known as the “Porkbusters” was behind efforts to help expose Alaska’s so-called “Bridge to
Nowhere.” This transportation project in Alaska to connect the tiny town of Ketchikan
(population 8,900) to the even tinier Island of Gravina (population 50) cost some $320 million
and was funded through three separate earmarks in a highway bill. The same group helped
expose which senator—Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska—had put a secret hold on a bill creating a
federal database of government spending, cosponsored by none other than then-Sen. Barack
Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Recently, the Sunlight Foundation launched
Transparency Corps, where people can volunteer small amounts of time to help enhance the
transparency of government data. The first project underway is helping to digitize earmark
data, which lawmakers are making available but only in awkward formats. Armed with easily
searchable data, citizens will be better equipped to track government spending on these
projects.
OpenCongress.org is another example of making information more available so that citizens
can digest and act on it. Through this site, which provides baseline information about federal
legislation along with social networking features, users can sign up for tracking alerts on a bill,
a vote, or a lawmaker and link up with other people who are interested in monitoring the same
topics, monitor and comment on legislation, and contact their members of Congress. In 2008,
more than 45,000 people posted comments on legislation extending unemployment benefits;
first they used the OpenCongress platform as a way to press their representative to vote for the
legislation. Then, once it was enacted, they turned their comment thread into a de facto selfhelp group for people looking for advice on how to get their state unemployment agency to
release their personal benefits. (Who needs lobbyists when you have the power of many?) In
spring 2009, the OpenCongress wiki launched, providing web searchers an entry on every
congressional lawmaker and candidate for Congress by pulling together their full biographical
and investigative record. And that’s open for anyone to edit.
We’re starting to see change from without become change for within, as government starts to
move toward a more modern, twenty-first-century understanding of its obligations to provide
up-to-date, searchable online information to the public. For example, FedSpending.org was
the first publicly available database on all government spending, created by the nonprofit OMB
Watch with support from Sunlight. Through it, citizens can find out not only how much money
individual contractors get, but also what percentage of those contracts have been competitively
bid. The database has been searched more than 15 million times since its inception in fall 2006.
Its creation helped prompt the passage of the Coburn-Obama bill mandating that the U.S. Office
of Management and Budget (OMB) create a similar database. But instead of spending $14

DISRUPTING WASHINGTON’S GOLDEN RULE

5

million appropriated for that task on re-creating the wheel, OMB ultimately struck a deal with
FedSpending.org to license the software to build the backbone of what is today
USASpending.gov, which provides citizens with easy access to government contract, grant, and
other award data.
Now, with the launch of Data.gov, the Obama administration is taking government
transparency to a new level. The site is still early in its development, but the idea is sound—
to provide a one-stop shop for all government data. If successful, it will ultimately make hardto-find, obscure databases, once the province only of experts, much more accessible. We can’t
imagine yet what new uses people will come up with for this information.

What Comes Next
Despite admirable advances in transparency, we have a long way to go. We in the transparency
community are working toward a time when there will be one-click, real-time disclosure. That
would mean a person could search a corporation such as Exxon and find out, in an instant,
the campaign contributions made at both the federal and state levels by its Political Action
Committee (PAC) and executives; who does its lobbying, with whom they’re meeting, and
what they’re lobbying on; whether it’s employing former government officials, or vice versa,
if any of its ex-employees are in government; whether any of those people have flown on the
company’s jets. We will also know what contracts, grants, or earmarks the company has gotten,
and whether they were competitively bid.
When we look up a senator, we will find an up-to-date list of her campaign contributors—not
one that is months out of date because the Senate still files those reports on paper. The senator’s
public calendar of meetings will be online, so we can see which lobbyists are bending her ear,
as will a list of earmarks the senator has sponsored and obtained. We will know what
connections the lawmaker has to any private charity people might be funneling money to. Also
online will be an up-to-date list of the senator’s financial assets, along with all the more
mundane things, such as a list of bills sponsored, votes taken, and public statements the senator
has made. Notably, all of this will be made available in a timely fashion.
We would like to see information about Congress linkable to agency data. That way, we could
easily find out whether a lawmaker who received mega-contributions from electric utilities
and voted a certain way on an energy bill also has plants in his district and how much pollution
they emit. We could see how many people in a congressional district were sickened by the
latest outbreak of Salmonella or E. coli, how that representative voted on food safety legislation,
and whether he attended a fundraiser hosted by a lobbyist for a big food conglomerate.
Making information available was the first big step; being able to connect the dots is the next
crucial one. To make sense of information, we need to be able to analyze how one data set
relates to another, as easily as we search Google Maps for that coffee shop with free WiFi. The
more connections we can make between seemingly disparate data, the more outsiders are
invited inside, and the golden rule is subverted. A small contractor who wants to get into

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government work has a better chance. Citizens can help watchdog and cut down on wasteful
spending. People can find out about traffic fatalities in their neighborhoods, governmentsponsored clinical drug trials, or whether there’s been a safety complaint about the toy they
were planning to buy their kid. The barrier for entry into policy debates will be much lower.
Sure, we will always need experts who have deep experience to help explain what information
means, to give it context. But in the future, it will be a lot easier for journalists, academics,
public interest advocates, bloggers, and citizens to conduct these analyses themselves. That will
mean a healthier debate and, as a result, a fairer and more vibrant democracy.
“The old paternalism said the world was way too complex, and that we should trust the elders
who have got the credentials to make the right decisions,” said David Weinberger, author of
Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, at the 2009 Personal Democracy
Forum conference. “But we’re beyond a paper-based democracy now. The facts that are being
given to us are intended to keep us unsettled, because in the hyper-linked world of difference,
being unsettled, existing in chaos and constructive difference and never-ending argument, is
a far better approximation of reality than the paper-based world could ever give us…
Transparency is the new objectivity.”
The old paternalism is dying, but there is more work to be done, because it’s to the benefit of
big money interests to try to get around transparency efforts and work outside of public view.
Transparency alone will not create a democratic nirvana. But there is no denying that the
outsiders are becoming the new insiders, with the potential to rattle the status quo in
fundamental ways. In the immortal words of the venerable Yoda, “Always in motion is the
future.”

DISRUPTING WASHINGTON’S GOLDEN RULE

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CHAPTER TWO

Visualizing Policy and Politicians
Fernanda Viégas
Martin Wattenberg

Crime rates in local communities. Campaign donations. Testimony before Congress. Open
government connotes open data. The Obama administration has acted on this premise and
produced a series of websites that will function as repositories for government data, at both
national and state levels. The next step for public engagement will be to make sense of this
data. Visualization can help.
Visualization is a key medium for communication in a data-rich world. It can have a catalytic
effect on data “storytelling” and collective analysis. We have seen examples of that power in
Many Eyes,* a public website we launched where anyone can upload and visualize data. The
site fosters a social style of data analysis that empowers users to engage with public data through
discussion and collaboration. Political debate, citizen activism, religious conversations, game
playing, and educational exchanges are all happening on Many Eyes. The public nature of these
visualizations provides users with a transformative path to information literacy.

Policy
Citizens are starting to realize the power of interactive visualization to help make sense of the
political world around them at both the national and local levels. In this section, we will

* http://www.many-eyes.com

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FIGURE 2-1. ProPublica treemap visualization of the federal stimulus bill of February 2009; rectangle size corresponds to amount
of money allocated

illustrate how people have been using visualization to think and talk about policy, the
economy, the health of their communities, and their expectations for government.
Looking closely at one’s own backyard can be quite revealing. This is what Jon Udell, a
prominent blogger, did when he created a series of Many Eyes visualizations of crime statistics
in his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire. Udell wanted to understand whether the facts
supported rumors of a crime wave in the area. After looking at the graphs and comparing
historical, national, and local trends, Jon concluded the perception of a local crime surge was
not warranted. He then created a screencast documenting his motivating questions, the data
collection process, the visualizations he created, and how playing with the visualizations helped
him deduce that perception was harsher than reality. His blog post on this screencast generated
a healthy number of comments, some of them from people who were hoping to do the same
kind of analysis in their own communities.
In addition to individual citizens, institutions have also been making use of Many Eyes
visualizations to monitor the economic and political world around them. ProPublica, a
nonprofit newsroom for investigative journalism, has used Many Eyes to cover a range of
issues, from unemployment insurance to weatherization projects in the United States. One of
the most popular visualizations ProPublica created is a treemap of the February 2009 federal
stimulus bill (see Figure 2-1). ProPublica placed the interactive visualization on its website, and
the visualization became one of a series of charts ProPublica created to follow the bill as it
passed both the House and Congress deliberations.

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CHAPTER TWO

Another example shows both the power of visualization to make an argument engaging, and
the potential for web-based visualizations to spread to new sites and audiences. The Sunlight
Foundation used data on congressional “earmarks” to create Many Eyes bubble charts, a new
visualization technique that represents a set of numbers by circles whose areas are proportional
to the underlying numbers (see Figure 2-2). A number of blogs picked up the visually striking
results. We then saw one of these charts appear in a video created by law professor and reformer
Lawrence Lessig, who used it as evidence of the favoritism that permeates the lawmaking
process.
Visualization can function as an accessible way to engage with intimidating amounts of textual
data as well as numeric data. In March 2009, President Obama invited citizens to ask him
questions about the economy in the first-ever Online Town Hall Meeting. More than 71,000
people submitted questions to the White House website. Such a collection can be hard to parse,
and the Obama team combed the collection to select the questions the president should address.
But what about the entire collection of questions? As a whole, they could represent the
concerns of a nation. The collection was publicly available, but vast, unstructured, and
unwieldy. Shortly after the question-and-answer session, Many Eyes users busily began
visualizing the entire set of submitted questions. One phrase net, a visualization technique
introduced on the Many Eyes site, mapped all the questions on education, revealing islands of
subjects: “schools and teachers,” “science and math,” and “college tuition” (see Figure 2-3).

From Policy to Politicians
On September 3, 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin gave a speech accepting the Republican
nomination for vice president of the United States. Within 24 hours, more than a dozen
visualizations of her words appeared on Many Eyes. These visualizations were accompanied
by others that sought clues to her personality and perspective: among them an Alaska state of
the union speech and an adoring column by William Kristol (see Figure 2-4).
These colorful visualizations are a far cry from the numerically intensive crime visualizations
described earlier. Yet they serve a clear purpose. In our representative democracy, it’s not
citizens who will change policy, but the politicians they elect. Getting to know these people—
their personalities, values, and motivations—is just as important as understanding the issues
of the day.
Of course, politicians have always been willing to introduce themselves. (Palin’s speech was a
masterpiece of the art of introduction, giving the Republican ticket an instant boost in the
polls.) But citizens have always treated politicians’ words with a healthy dose of skepticism.
It’s assumed that before a speech is uploaded to a teleprompter, sent to the Associated Press,
or posted to a blog it has been dutifully vetted to remove anything that might be too revealing.
One of the most interesting uses of text visualization is to find a new perspective on carefully
manicured words. With the right tools, it might be possible to uncover a perspective that a

VISUALIZING POLICY AND POLITICIANS

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FIGURE 2-2. Sunlight Foundation earmark bubble charts, showing the amount of money per state in 2005 (top) and the amount
of money per government agency in 2005 (bottom)
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CHAPTER TWO

FIGURE 2-3. A visualization of questions on education, from among the collection of questions that were submitted to the White
House for President Obama to address in the Online Town Hall Meeting in March 2009

politician’s handlers did not plan for. We saw examples of this search for meanings on Many
Eyes. One user, for instance, created a comparison tag cloud, showing John McCain’s blog
contrasted with the blog of his 23-year-old daughter Meghan, who was appearing with him
on the campaign trail (see Figure 2-5).
In this visualization, the words in orange are taken from Meghan’s blog, and the blue words
are from John’s. The size of each word tells how frequently it occurs, and the words are sorted
from more frequent use in Meghan’s blog (top) to more frequent use in John’s (bottom). The
comparison ends up being a kind of filter, with common and clichéd words in the center
(time, things, senator). At the bottom, however, we see the three words military, angry, and

VISUALIZING POLICY AND POLITICIANS

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FIGURE 2-4. Wordle of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech of September 2008

FIGURE 2-5. Comparative tag cloud of two McCain blogs: John’s (in blue) and Meghan’s (in orange)

American. At a time when McCain’s campaign was trying to project a softer image, it is
interesting to see “anger” take a prominent place.
In some cases, a politician may not be merely spinning, but actively evading an issue. A recent
notorious case was the 2007 testimony of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, regarding
the firing of U.S. lawyers. After one of the Many Eyes team members put up a word tree
visualization of his testimony, showing the prevalence of the phrase “I don’t recall” (see
Figure 2-6), another user on the site quickly followed with an analogous visualization of Bill
Clinton’s words in another famous piece of testimony (see Figure 2-7). In this case, the creation
of the visualization may be seen as a kind of debate statement in itself—not about policy, but
making the point that evasive testimony crosses party lines.

Visual Literacy
How broadly accessible are these sometimes esoteric visualizations? There’s no doubt that some
of the visualization activity on Many Eyes (and other sites) is created by, and plays to, an early-

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FIGURE 2-6. Word tree of Alberto Gonzales’s 2007 testimony before Congress

adopter audience that enjoys engaging with data for its own sake. But at the same time there
is evidence that both creators and viewers of the visualizations are a diverse group. In
interviews with Many Eyes users, we learned that some of the most active users had never
worked with data before—in at least one case, had never used a spreadsheet. We have also
seen more than a dozen different classes use Many Eyes for class assignments, indicating that
some teachers are putting an emphasis on teaching visual literacy.
Indeed, new and unusual visualization types seem to have the power to pique readers’ interest.
Part of what drew bloggers to the earmark bubble chart, for instance, may have been its striking
appearance. We certainly see this happening elsewhere as well. Alluring charts and graphs
from The New York Times and CNN, for instance, have become national conversation pieces.
CNN launched an interactive wall that visualized the evolution of voting patterns during the
last presidential election. The New York Times has used interactive visualizations to cover a
variety of subjects, ranging from the war in Iraq to how Congress questions Supreme Court
nominees.

Conclusion
Our experiences with Many Eyes suggest three principles for how visualization can help with
open government.
First, statistical graphics ground debate in reality. For readers, they are effective at
communicating basic aspects of an issue. But just as important is the fact that graphs and charts

VISUALIZING POLICY AND POLITICIANS

15

FIGURE 2-7. Word tree of Bill Clinton’s 1998 grand jury testimony

impose a kind of discipline on authors. To create an illuminating visualization, a writer must
gather a complete data set, which usually means finding and checking original sources. As we
saw with the example of crime in Keene, this process may cause an author to rethink his
original point and a healthy debate to ensue.
Second, text is data. People have become used to showing numbers in bar charts or line graphs,
but the ability to create diagrams of text is new. New visualizations aimed at words rather than
numbers hold out the hope of providing unfiltered insight into the minds of politicians and
citizens alike.
Finally, readers today are becoming visually literate. We’ve seen broad uptake and popularity
of visualizations that are complex, sophisticated, and often unfamiliar. As far as we can tell,
readers are good at understanding the message of complex visualizations, and an unusual
diagram is often an active draw for audiences rather than a turnoff.

16

CHAPTER TWO

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