Mistake #4: Waiting for change
Occasionally I encounter proposals from groups whose plan requires first making government release some data, or pass some law. Then, once that happens, they can build something really cool and useful. There are lots of crazy ideas in this field, but this approach is amongst the craziest. As Micah Sifry explained to the attendees at PDF Europe this afternoon1, in a neat prelude to this post, one of the reasons the US (and by implication also the UK) is further ahead with these sorts of sites than most countries, is simply because they hacked Congress rather than waiting to be given what they wanted.
The approach here is straightforward: simply act the way you want the world to be, then wait for reality to catch up.
One of my favourite examples of this is WhatDoTheyKnow.com. The UK’s Freedom of Information laws have several gaping loopholes. One of these is that although companies which are wholly owned by a government body are subject to the law, companies which are jointly owned by two or more government bodies are not! This is almost certainly down to nothing more than bad lawmaking: there’s no reason why such companies shouldn’t be subject to FOI. So, at WhatDoTheyKnow, we include them on the site so that people can make requests to them as if they were.
It turns out that most of them are happy to comply voluntarily: they’re funded by public money, they likely believe they should be subject, and, as everything on WhatDoTheyKnow happens in public, an answer of “We don’t have to tell you that!”, whilst strictly true, may lead to negative publicity, further questions being asked, and increased pressure for the loophole to be closed off.
We’re hopeful that the next version of the FOI legislation will fix this problem, but unlike an official, government run site would have to, we don’t need to wait for that to happen: we can just pretend it’s already in place, and act accordingly.
It’s not always quite as easy to do this, and sometimes it may take some ingenuity, particularly if you need to get hold of data that isn’t officially available yet, but in areas where you believe things probably will change soon, if you act like how you wish things were, you’ll often be surprised how easily you can drag the world along with you. And being part of that change is a lot more beneficial (and exciting) than just waiting around for it to happen.
- some of you may be able to deduce from this why these posts have been so late for the last two days! [↩]