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Ladling Data at a Government Info Soup Kitchen

A volunteer effort to make federal and state data more accessible to the public makes efforts to be transparent more genuine.

The sprawling new offices of the Sunlight Foundation in Washington were filled this weekend with a couple dozen developers, each sacked out on a corner couch or around the main conference room table with a laptop and a muffin.

The open-government advocacy group was hosting a Great American Hackathon, which sounds more menacing than it actually is: The point wasn't to extract data officials don't want us to see, but to convert already-public information into civic-minded applications that might make us better-informed voters and make our government more accountable in the process.

About 40 people showed up, and 200 or so participated in coordinated hackathons in San Francisco, Portland, Pittsburgh and a dozen other cities over the weekend.

"Look at these guys over here, five guys standing around a whiteboard, brainstorming and coming up with ideas," said Jeff Mace, a software developer by day who showed up Saturday morning because he came across a tweet about the event. "Technology is not about ones and zeros. Technology is about process, and processes involve people. That's why events like this are good."

He was trying to explain why the seemingly solitary activity of writing code makes for a good collective volunteer project.

"Certainly you can go and volunteer at soup kitchens, or just into the general community," he said. "But there's also a set of skills that I have that I could use somewhere else that maybe makes more sense."

Saturday, the guy sitting next to Mace at the conference table was roping him into his priority for the weekend, the Voting Information Project. It seeks to ramp up the availability of official information on polling locations and ballot details on state-level secretary of state Web sites. In the age of Internet information, people ought to be able to look up where to vote, who's on the ballot at the federal, state and local level — even take one more click to candidate Web sites and third-party questionnaires. Many secretary of state sites today are far from that.

Also on the white board Saturday seeking contributions: the Fifty States Project, which is amassing info on every local legislature in the country; the Real Time Congress server, which includes a live feed of updates from the House and Senate floor; the Government Acronym Glossary ("GAG" for short); and an all-encompassing National Data Catalogue.

This is something of a burgeoning field, manipulating newly freed government data into usable applications for citizens' lives. The Obama administration — which last week unveiled the long-awaited Open Government Directive — has made dumping information on the Internet a new national fad, launching a parallel rush outside government to do something with all the raw material. (The administration's move toward transparency, though, is a small piece of the puzzle: covers only information from the executive branch at the federal level.)

In another world, all of this coding work could be done by companies eyeing the profit buried in government data. (You'd pay to get GPS tracking in your rental car on vacation, right?) But Sunlight is contributing to another kind of culture, setting a tone early in the era of transparency that assumes there is information — data that would help you become a smarter voter, a more engaged citizen — that should be made available to everyone for free (either on the Internet or the iPhone app market). And making that happen requires, well, this geeky new volunteerism. These developers, said Sunlight Labs' Eric Mill, are the force multipliers of the system.

Inside this culture, it's an entirely normal to spend a few hours outside work on a weekend picking away at the code that will translate bills moving through the Idaho State Legislature into progress someone in Iowa can follow.

"The way that open-source software ideals have grown really pushes a social approach to coding," Mill said. "It's very much a mentality of 'I can make a little contribution at least to pretty much anything out there I care about.'"

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