This post was originally published on Huffington Post tech on December 21, 2009.
Recently, I wrote a post about Government 2.0 predictions for 2010-12, and one of them was that government would “always be on-the-record.”
By that I meant that the combination of (1) the proliferation of tech-savvy citizens with mobile camera/video devices, (2) the prevalence of wi-fi or other Web connections, (3) the massive number of people using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and (4) the great interest that people have right now in a number of controversial issues like our current wars, health care, and climate change that people could and probably would start documenting everything that government officials do and say, where they go, who they meet with, for how long, what their staffers eat for lunch and with whom, and so on.
And you don’t need to be a professional journalist to do this, or even to do it well. An entire site along the lines of Gawker.com could be started around this, in fact. GovernmentGawker.com, anyone?
Well, I was doing some research to look at planes versus trains to get home for the holidays (in light of the recent blizzard that’s affected transport in the DC-NY-Boston corridor), and I came across a fantastic video that essentially puts the Amtrak Acela First Class service on the record for the trip between New York and Boston (7 min edited clip). Check it out.
Now, imagine if someone did the same thing, but wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), currently in the middle of heated debate about health care legislation. It’s not hard.
You check the general schedules of his committees and such beforehand, research powerful, under-the-radar staff and other relevant people on the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov.com, go through simple security at the Capitol (far easier than an airport), find Nelson’s office in the Hart building, camp out in his waiting area, maybe ask the person at the front desk some questions, find some press in the hallways and ask some questions (maybe visit the Russell rotunda, where the television crews do their spots), stalk the cafeteria (there’s a great coffee shop called Cups in the basement) and listen for people saying “Nelson,” go back to his office and see him leaving to walk down the hall to a committee hearing, take photos of the staff with him on your Samsung ST-1000 with wi-fi and geo-tagging and upload the pics to Bing Maps and Facebook, go to the sub-committee hearing and tape it from a Flip in your coat pocket while you tweet live notes, upload your Flip video to YouTube while you follow Nelson to his next meeting, and so forth.
(Note: This post has nothing in particular to do with Sen. Nelson or health care, it’s just an example “ripped from the headlines” – I’ve even met and chatted with him when he spoke about energy at the Defense Department, he’s a nice person.)
You can surely imagine at this point many variations on this for political appointees you don’t like, lobbyists you’re interested in, principal deputy assistant secretaries that make important decisions but don’t necessarily travel in armored vehicles with bodyguards, various members of the press who might be meeting with sources at Capitol Hill bars, etc. Trust me, this isn’t hard. If you live in Washington, DC, you probably realize how very easy this is, in fact, when combined with some good traditional news sources like the Post, Times, The Hill, and Politico. (If you live in Washington, DC, you also know that it’s incredibly common to know where various officials live, eat, and so forth – I used to live about two blocks from Senator Obama’s pad.)
But why would someone want to create an “ambient stream” of Senator Nelson or anyone else’s life? (Besides it being fascinating in a lowbrow, Gossip Girl kind of way, of course.) Well, most people wouldn’t. But so what? It’s just like Wikipedia – only about 1% of people who use Wikipedia actively edit it; about 9% do sometimes, and 90% just read it. Twitter is not unlike that either – only about 10% of users contribute 90% of the tweets.
So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this? Roughly there are 300 million people in the U.S., say half of them are adults, so we have 1% of 150 million as 1.5 million. Now, if everyone just did this at the state, local, or federal level one day a year, and generated one “amateur journalism piece” from that day, that’s about 4,100 videos/blog posts/tweet sets generated PER DAY. That’s a lot of government on-the-record.