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Q&A: Ellen Miller on the Sunlight Foundation’s role in increasing the availability of open data

Upon the announcement of her retirement, Miller reflects on her time as executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which she founded in 2006.

For the past eight years, Ellen Miller has been one of the nation’s most prominent activists for open government and open data. She’s executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which she started in 2006, and last week she announced she would be retiring at the end of the year.

Miller told me she was looking forward to some time off, and assured me she had no other plans after previously starting two other nonprofits. (“I’m not running for president,” she joked.) But the impact of her years at Sunlight is already clear, in the much more central role open data and transparency has taken in how we talk about government and journalism today.

Miller and I discussed her accomplishments and what she sees as the future of the open data movement. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: So why retire now?

Ellen Miller: The reason is that Sunlight is now an eight-year-old organization. It is in its strongest condition that it’s been in since its founding not very many years ago. But I felt from a financial and managerial and vision and role perspective that if I stepped away at the end of this year, I could not leave it in a better place. So I felt the institution was strong enough for its founding director to be able to move on.

Lichterman: Why do you think it’s in the strongest place right now? What is going so well that puts the foundation in such a strong position?

Miller: Well, Sunlight has played a pretty unique role in as a catalyst for the open data policy changes that are happening, not only here in the U.S. at the federal level, but also at the state and municipal level and globally — and that has been one of our huge successes to serve as that catalyst.

We sort of invented the word transparency as meaning 21st-century-style disclosure, and now it’s become a cultural norm that in order to have participatory democracy in which accountable government is a watch word. You have to have access to information, you have to have access to data and the default has to be open.

It’s not to say we have reached the state or the condition where everything both from the process and from a data and information side is open, but we have reached the state where it’s hard to deny that that is the best policy we should have. There are lots of transition issues, of course. There’s lots of political resistance to the idea because information is power, and that’s why we demand that it be in the public arena and why some people don’t want it to be in the public arena. But that ball is rolling down hill and it’s a pretty unstoppable one. I think Sunlight has been very instrumental in that.

Another tremendous strength of ours is that we have pioneered making it easy to use the data — particularly in the tech world via APIs, technical interfaces on data. We’ve shown others how to do that to power their own advocacy and apps. And we’ve just seen tremendous growth and interest in that among the technical community.

Another example I think of as a strength of ours in the journalism sphere has been this tremendous demand that we have nurtured for training on the kinds of tools and databases we have created to make the hard data journalism work easier for those who practice it. Not every reporter in every newsroom has to go and create a database. They can use some of the generic ones we’ve done around congressional legislation, or money in politics, the connections between political contributions and government grants and contracts, or databases we have created that look at regulatory matters and allow you to do an analysis of who is really commenting on regulatory matters or following particular dockets. So we’ve had tremendous demand. We’ve trained thousands, if not tens of thousands, journalists on those tools and we have also seen a growth and a recognition that many many outlets are hiring their own data journalists, because they understand the importance of that capacity internally — including hiring some of ours away.

One more piece too, of our strengths, is the policy norms that we have established for what open data looks like generally, and what open parliamentary data looks like, is now appreciated at all levels of government. So we work with municipalities, with NGOs in other countries, we work with the open government partnership because of the kinds of standards we have set for what these policies should look like have really become the norm and people are working from those. That’s a very important strength of Sunlight’s from the policy side.

Lichterman: You’re saying this has become more like the norm now. What was it like in 2006 when you started? Why did you think there was a need for this type of advocacy?

Miller: A lot of government data was either not available or was available, you know, between the hours of 2 and 6 in the basement of some government building that had a sign on it: “Beware of the lion.” We redefined what 21st-century transparency looks like, and that means it’s online and accessible to anyone. It means it’s online in machine-readable formats. And we said that is the standard — that is our bottom line: Make the data available in machine-readable formats online.

Of course, we would like to see more timely collection and publication of that data. But making it more accessible and recognizing the fact that this thing called the Internet exists, and it’s a perfect tool making information available without prejudice, and really redefining what disclosure means in the 21st century, which means it’s available online, electronically.

Lichterman: That seems like a really radical change, a big shift in thinking.

Miller: It is. But when Sunlight was founded, we were already getting used to ordering a book, or downloading a movie, or ordering a pair of shoes and having them the next day. And so that larger culture shift about the impact that technology was having on our lives seemed to be a natural to apply to government and how we interact with government.

Whether it’s citizens who want to follow the legislation that might affect them via their city council, or via their state legislature, or in the federal congress. Whether it’s something that’s fairly high level or people just really want to know what the bus schedule is for their local neighborhoods so they know how long they have to stand outside in the freezing cold. The importance of data is just sort of like: I need to know that, and I need to know it now. That is the 24/7 culture in which we began living in maybe before 2006, but certainly we are dead center in it now. Governments are recognizing that people expect to get the information that way, and they need to be able to provide it that way.

Lichterman: What do you think journalists’ role is in all of this?

Miller: Journalists bring tremendous, tremendous capacity to telling the story behind the data. So the data is data, right? There’s no story there. The journalist’s job is still to connect the dots. To see if the largest campaign contributors to a state legislator are getting bills and votes according to the people they contribute to. The same thing at the federal level. To examine whether a city council member’s campaign is actually funded by someone who gets a zoning exemption, or how legislation is skewed in the Congress.

It’s a journalist’s core responsibility, I think, to tell that story in a way citizens can understand it. It could be deep-dive investigative work, but it could be just as simple as saying, “Wow, 1 + 1 sure looks like it adds up to 2 to me.” So journalists remain a critically important link in the data story. Releasing every piece of data that the government collects might have absolutely no impact at all if it weren’t for journalists.

Lichterman: There’s been such a shift in the scene regarding open data and so much change going on, where do you foresee this going in the future?

Miller: I think the genie is out of the bottle in terms of open government data — meaning accessibility online. So I think that will continue. There will be more and more data, and more easy accessibility to it, which means more people will use it. Some for business, some for just pure public consumption, and I think it has the potential to lead to a more engaged and aware public.

There are many, many challenges around my desire for engagement, not the least of which is the things that people build — that developers build things people want to use. We have to be more conscious about designing apps and uses of this data. It’s not necessarily Sunlight’s role, though we do some of this and we are much more conscious than we were certainly three or four years ago when we build something about how people want to use it and what do they want to do with it and what is the information they want to know.

I think we have to be better about reaching beyond the choir. The choir is huge, if you look at some of the Pew numbers about people who are online seeking political information. I haven’t seen any numbers in maybe the last eight or nine months, but at one time the figure was something like 20 million people who were online seeking political information. That’s a big, big group of people. That has to be enlarged. And it can be, because of the distributive nature of technology and the way people use text messaging and other sorts of mobile apps in monitoring elections, et cetera.

The potential is there to be explored that could conceivably result in a much wider, more fully engaged body politic beyond elections. People getting involved in various kinds of activities and technology enables that.

Lichterman: Should it be Sunlight’s role to take that on and work to achieve these goals?

Miller: Sunlight, I think, will continue to focus on the front end of things, which is the working on the policy to make sure the data actually does get released. We’ve had lots of situations here — I’ve dubbed them transparency theater — where the administration says they’re going to release something.

For instance, they issued an executive order last March. It came due in December. All the agencies were supposed to make a list of all their publicly held data. And they did, supposedly, and that list is not public. So, we FOIAed for it.

It’s one step forward and two steps back, so there is a tremendous amount of work still to be done on the policy side. There’s a tremendous amount of work still to be done on working with government in terms of using the most sophisticated but simple ways of technical interfaces on how to release data. There’s a tremendous amount of work still to be done in designing apps, whether they’re being designed in the private sector or by government. So all of that is a precursor to this vision of a much more fully engaged body politic, brought to the political system via technology.

For example, Sunlight is in the business now of refining the most successful apps we have. In our first year to 18 months, we developed 18 websites or apps. We were just throwing them out there and seeing what would work. We didn’t know what would work.

Now we’re more serious, and we do much more human-centric design, and we kill things that really are not working, even if it’s somebody’s favorite but nobody else likes but that one user. Gone. That includes me. So we’re really digging into learning what works and being much more sensitive about design so that we can dig deeper and get more sustained use of things.

Lichterman: What’s next for you?

Miller: I fully intend to retire! This is actually not a joke. Sunlight is the third nonprofit I’ve founded. I’m the founder of the Center for Responsive Politics and the founder of Public Campaign. I’ve worked really, really hard. Actually, one of the just thrilling things of my announcement is how many people have written to me and said “You gave me my first opportunity,” and now they’re off in some senior position someplace. So I really am looking forward to not having a day job. And I have no other plans. And I’m not running for president.

Photo by Open Knowledge Foundation used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Tilman

    The Link to the Sunlight Foundation’s website seems to be wrong – it’s
    not a .org but a .com domain (http://sunlightfoundation.com/)

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Fixed, thanks!