The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jun 18, 2013

Sunlight Foundation: Open government data made useful

Posted by Marie Gilot

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Above, the Sunlight Foundation app Sitegeist allows users to instantly access public data about the neighborhood they’re in.

Making government data available is crucial to government transparency. But that’s not enough. The data must be presented in ways that are useful to people –regular people, busy people, people who are not generally inclined to dig through government datasets for fun. The Sunlight Foundation, a seven-year-old open government organization based in Washington, D.C., is leading the way by turning dry government information into useful apps. For example, Sitegeist uses geolocation to deliver relevant information about a user’s surroundings using U.S. Census and other public resources. The app is a hit: It has been been downloaded more than 84,000 times in the six months since it launched and used about 115,000 times.

To build on that success, Knight Foundation is making a $4 million grant to Sunlight. With this funding, Sunlight will expand its data sets, create apps and products that engage the general public (not just policy wonks) and help make government at all levels more open and participatory.

The grant is a cornerstone of Knight Foundation’s focus on open government, which includes investments in a range of projects such as NYU GovLab, Code for America, Open Elections and Textizen among others. We will also be announcing the winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Gov next week (June 24), at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference.

Our proposition is that governments and anyone interested in open government should work together to produce tools that make public information more accessible, searchable and usable.  Sunlight has the technological know-how to make it happen. Its digital tools were used to access public information 400 million times in 2012. But what is truly innovative about Sunlight is that its leaders  have embraced a human-centered design approach to understand  community needs, behaviors and personalities and build products that truly connect.  

Our hope is that others in the nascent field of open government will work with Sunlight to adopt the mindset that making government data useful is the key to making government transparency pervasive and lasting.

By Marie Gilot, media innovation associate at Knight Foundation.

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