Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Aug 26, 2004 8:07pm

a cloud of black ink

This New York Times opinion piece was as notable for its source, as its content: Hiding the Truth in a Cloud of Black Ink.

...But too often, Congress and the American people lack the best information - in the form of declassified intelligence and national security materials - to ensure that the job is done right.

The authors of this article are Trent "all these problems over all these years" Lott [open secrets, wikipedia] and Ron Wyden [open secrets, wikipedia].

Lott and Wyden propose the creation of an independent national security classification board, which would oversee the national security classification system, set and review standards used to classify information, and review classification decisions. There's a small gotcha at the end, regarding the status of information that is "born classified", but overall it shows tremendous respect for the value of reliable, accessible data for the healthy functioning of a free and open society.

The article's title reminded me of another possible cloud of black ink: the meaningless haze of an information surplus, where so much data is being released that it becomes impossible for the average citizen to form a clear mental model of what's going on. As I've been researching Open Secrets, it has struck me that much valuable information becomes lost in the flood of government disclosure. Normally, the task of comprehending, digesting and reporting this information falls to journalists, but the advent of a 24-hour news cycle and reliance on press releases to fill in details appears to have made it more difficult to derive specific, meaningful knowledge or understanding from the facts made available.

Open Secrets (bless their hearts) strives to process these facts so that they can be presented in a concise, readable format: the site features pages and tables of top campaign donors, lists of lobbying firms, campaign contributions broken down by party, industry, and channel. Everything is derived from FEC filings, and can be traced and fact-checked.

The information provided lacks a higher-order: it's possible to find facts, but difficult to compare them. It's easy to match funds to legislators, parties or congressional committees, but difficult to relate these facts to contextual information. Open Secrets is sorely missing is a visual component.

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