News: Charlotte Exclusives

Information Dump

Citizens with access to info are powerful agents of change

If information is power and information wants to be free, does that mean that power is free? Could be.

The immense power of freely distributed information is on display at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg government Web site, which just received honors from the Center for Digital Government in the government-to-citizen arena. The truly exciting thing is that this wave of information dispersal is just beginning.

The Char-Meck system takes info that for years has been locked up in government reports, in courthouses, in the tax assessor’s office, and the site makes the data easily available to general public. In theory much of this material always has been public, but in practice that usually meant a trip to distant courthouse and the mastery of arcane cataloging rules. This meant the info was, in effect, restricted to a small set of persons, perhaps lawyers or real estate professionals in the cases of property information.

But now it is possible to know a great deal about a piece of property, for example. Who owns a parcel, what it sold for, how much tax is paid, plans for future roads, all can be gleaned in a few minutes of Web cruising. This is a revolution in information dispersal.

Such map-based interfaces are examples of rapidly spreading Geographic Information Systems. Such systems are easy for users to navigate as they simply require the user to “drill down” a series of maps rather than master a complicated series of commands. Cheap and powerful computers along with fast Net connections mean that information systems once only in the hands of big corporations or government agencies are now easily found in many private homes. This means the government-to-citizen transfer belt is scalable, which is computer-ese for “has room to grow.”

And how might it grow? The state of Washington just went online with its digital archive, the first such archive in the country. Volunteers scanned in over million documents. This takes the info dispersal when step further into the realm of historical documents, sometimes fragile documents that librarians might worry about if too many members of the public tried to handle them. But accessed electronically such worries disappear.

How will the archive be used? Well, with decades of county birth, death, and marriage records, along with military and immigration documents it is safe bet that Washington’s armchair genealogists will have a field day. But the truth is no one really knows, and that is the beauty of putting information in the hands of the people. It puts the power to be creative or to solve problems back in the private sector.

The city of Charlotte received another lesson in the power of information just this week when leaders of several neighborhoods complained they did not know what the city was doing to address complaints about violations of city codes. Now the city has agreed to make info on code violations, illegal parking and such, Web-accessible. Not a magical fix to the problem, but a step toward keeping the community in the loop about vital issues.

Such challenges to conventional information flow pyramid — everything up to the top to the decision-makers — will only accelerate in coming years. Government leaders who are receptive to the change, however painful it might seem in the short-term, will replace the pyramid with a feedback loop rich with valuable insights.

Silicon Valley tech guru Guy Kawasaki has a vivid metaphor for spreading information; he calls it pooping like an elephant. By that Kawasaki means that true leaders of change want to err on spreading too much information, rather than too little. This would seem to be particularly sage advice for government institutions, which often find themselves with an excess of fertilizer.