These days, it seems everyone in San Diego wants to claim the “Watchdog” title.
That’s the moniker adopted by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s investigative-reporting team, in addition to the U-T’s nonprofit spinoff The Watchdog Institute. San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio has dubbed himself “San Diego’s Taxpayer Watchdog.” Meanwhile, Congressmember Darrell Issa, a Republican whose district covers much of North County, regularly applies the “Watchdog” epithet to himself in the context of his leadership role on the House Committee on Oversight and government Reform.
But, the fact of the matter is that emerging digital technologies and public resources mean that everyone can play the watchdog, not just the political and media elite.
March 13 through 19 is “Sunshine Week,” a national effort by media organizations and open-government advocates to promote access to public information. Working with the fledgling data organization, Open San Diego, CityBeat is launching a special Sunshine Week website: flashlight.opensandiego.org. The site is a collection of more than 200 bookmarks (and growing) organized to help local citizens navigate the maze of public-records data evolving out of the growing culture of transparency.
Ours is not the only active project out there empowering citizens to become agents for better government. Here are four groups, from activists to lawyers, that will help you sniff out information and bark at the stuff that smells fishy:
Open San Diego: Jed Sundwall is sometimes overly cautious when it comes to talking about open government. With Julian Assange and WikiLeaks wreaking havoc with the release of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets, Sundwall’s finding that transparency now carries a certain “gotcha” connotation.
“They make our work harder than it has to be,” Sundwall says in an instant-message interview. “We want to make the case that more openness is a good thing for everyone, including policymakers and public servants. There’s a strong current of ‘We need transparency so we can catch people with their pants down’ among open-government advocates… but I want to emphasize that it helps journalists tell the truth about great work being done just as easily as it allows them to tell the truth about poor work.”
Spearheaded by Sundwall, an internet-marketing specialist who worked as a consultant on President Barack Obama’s transparency initiatives USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov, Open San Diego emerged from discussions with web specialists at KPBS a little more than six months ago. The project has organized gatherings between journalists and computer programmers and given presentations to digital innovators. In addition to flashlight.opensandiego.org, the group’s also in the process of launching maps.opensandiego.org, designed by local web developer Jeffrey Johnson to allow users to view San Diego as a map imbued with layers upon layers of statistical data.
The trick will be figuring out how to fund the effort.
“Open San Diego could be like a data consultancy that works on projects for people (the city government, businesses, anyone) doing data analysis or helping organizations make their data more available,” Sundwall says. “Our analysts would get paid for their work, but a percent of the fee for the work would go back into Open San Diego to fund more work on things like Flashlight, Maps and advocacy work.”
InstantIMPACT: Back in February, local attorney Julian Bryant picked up a copy of The Week magazine with a cover illustration of a young, North African man intently examining an iPhone in a sea of protesters.
“It said, ‘An App for Democracy,’” Bryant says. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
OK, so Bryant’s not trying to overthrow the U.S. government through social media. He’s been working on InstantIM- PACT (instant-impact.org), an application for smart phones and tablets that provides a direct way for citizens to stay active in government affairs, from calling members of Congress to tracking proposed ordinances through San Diego City Council subcommittees.
“I wanted to build an app so that any citizen can say, ‘I care about the environment,’ then know all the issues happening on the environment, whether it be city, county state or nationally,” Bryant says. “I found there’s no really easy way to do this.”
The app will track legislation and action alerts from advocacy organizations and allow users to simply touch the face of their elected officials to send messages or call their offices directly.
It’s a project he expects to be working on for the next seven to 10 years. Now that he has the basic application ready to go, the next hurdle is convincing organizations, including political committees and candidates, to use the platform to communicate with supporters. He also has to persuade government agencies to make their agendas and legislation digitally accessible, particularly in the smaller jurisdictions in San Diego County.
“I can tell my computer to download all my e-mails, but I can’t tell it to download all the new bills introduced in City Council,” he says. “If I could, that would be a new way to get people involved in those issues.”
Citizens Oversight Projects: When he’s not running for Congress and starving himself to force his opponents to debate, Ray Lutz is attending public meetings held by oft-ignored government agencies. Then he goes home and uploads everything he can—public records, news articles, videos—onto the site he started three years ago to coordinate community activism, CopsWiki.org.
“Many, many, many of these bodies have no one who follows them on a regular basis, especially ones like the Grossmont Healthcare District, where I’ve been the only one going to these meetings,” Lutz says. “Over the years, you start to learn what they’re doing, what schemes are going on, and you can catch them.”
Cops stands for Citizens Oversight Projects, an organization he’s in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit. To date, the effort has focused on issues like opposing a Blackwater training facility in San Diego County and, currently, the Sunrise Powerlink, a regional high-voltage transmission line.
Lutz says that, moving forward, the organization will let go of some of its positions and move toward nonpartisan activist boot camps— offering a sort of “degree in being a citizen” —and hosting town halls, including one on pension reform in mid-April.
New Media Rights: Since 1983, the Utility Consumers’ Action Network has been a driving force for open-government motivated by consumer advocacy. Three years ago, UCAN went a step further, formally supporting a spin-off dedicated to media reform.
Led by local attorney Art Neill and media activist Mera Szendro Bok, New Media Rights (newmediarights.org) provides pro-bono legal advice, free production-studio resources and organizes networking events—including Drumbeat, a February event sponsored by Mozilla, where Open San Diego, Cops and InstantIMPACT each held workshops and discussions.
“We’re always willing to help bloggers and citizen-journalists with Public Records Act (PRA) requests,” Neill says. “PRA and FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests are not extremely difficult, but there really is a nuance to getting them done. Once you send in the ideal request, there’s always dealing with bureaucrats and negotiating over the data.”
The group also has an activist bent, particularly when it comes to privacy rights, net neutrality, free speech and transparency.
access is not going to happen internally,” Neill says. “These
government agencies are not equipped for innovation. It has to be
outside groups putting pressure on government.”