Monday debate: Online databases for strategic communication and enterprise reporting

Over the weekend the Wisconsin State Journal ran an article about the salaries of UW-Madison and UW System faculty and staff.  While the article itself, limited to one page of the physical paper, could only highlight the extremes and averages of various salary types (I’m worth about five head football coaches, in case you were wondering), the paper took the additional step of making its entire salary database — which it had acquired from the state through an open records request — available online for public searching.

My curiosity about this database led me to the data resource center that has been slowly growing thanks to contributions by both the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times.  It’s filled with interesting local data from the deadly serious to the charmingly trivial.  Some samples:

and much more.

In my Introduction to Mass Communication course last week, I had explored a similar set of resources with my students.  In a discussion of strategic communication and public relations efforts related to think tanks, election spending, and government lobbying, I showed them that there are a whole range of organizations — both partisan and non-partisan — that collect and publish data on political persuasion activities in attempt to watchdog both private and public practices.  For example, the Center for Responsive Politics has tracked spending on elections for over a quarter-century.  The group OMB Watch has created to track government contracting.  And the organization Taxpayers for Common Sense even mashed up data on earmarks with a Google map so that users could hone in on pork-barrel spending in their own communities with ease.  Micah Sifry, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, called the use of such databases “sousveillance,” the view from below (as opposed to “surveillance,” the view from above).  The hope in such efforts is that citizens from all backgrounds and interests will be able to find, understand, and act on such transparent data.

But how do we realize this hope?  Do we in our many public roles with their many private demands — citizens, consumers, workers, students, parents, children — have the time, the resources, and the training to seek out and find, interpret and utilize, such rich data?  Transparency doesn’t just happen.  Extracting important data from the powerful institutions that produce it requires time, money, expertise, and legal authority (just like any kind of investigative reporting).  So does making that data actually “work” in the world for any type of social, political, or economic goal.  We’re right back to questions of the feasible and desirable role between information producers, information mediators, and information consumers.

Who is exploring the way today’s public-interest online data is produced, organized, distributed, and used?  And what could a research project on public databases reveal about how these practices are changing in a personalized new media information environment that’s experiencing rapid global, technological, and economic restructuring?

So, some questions for Monday debate. Whose responsibility is it to provide public data on social, cultural, and political-economic processes of public interest?  Do we believe that journalists and the largely private print, broadcast, or online organizations that employ them are willing and able devote the time and money to such data gathering and dissemination?  Should we demand that our public governmental, research, and regulatory institutions be more transparent and forthcoming with this information?  (And as taxpayers are we willing to pay the costs of such work?)  Or are data transparency processes increasingly becoming the job of non-governmental, non-profit organizations — both those claiming to act in the non-commercial, non-partisan public interest, and those acting on behalf of particular corporate, political, and activist projects in the world?

Even as we try to “save good journalism,” should we be trying to “save good data production” too?