Public Knowledge for the Public Good: Working Toward Digital Access in the Spirit of Aaron Swartz

Knowledge Workers in the Trenches

Perhaps information wants to be free. But the real question is: Who will make it free?

There are many types of knowledge “worker bees” who are buzzing away in the trenches. Aaron Swartz provides the model of the creative, if edgy, hacker. But Steven Aftergood, a kind of civil servant for government open access, is the professional, quotidian mirror image of Swartz. Aftergood runs the Secrecy News, part of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a group that was founded in 1945 by members of the Manhattan Project. For decades, FAS was led by Jeremy Stone, son of the legendary investigative journalist I.F. Stone.

For 20 years, Aftergood has vacuumed up and published tens of thousands of pages of classified documents in the national security sphere. His daily email provides links to new documents hosted on FAS’s site as well as syntheses of the high points. Aftergood also surfaces a vast range of Congressional Research Service reports and documents — paid for with public dollars, but notoriously difficult to access — that can provide insight on all manner of policy issues. Developing good sources is key to this work, he says, but the sifting, organizing and educating is equally important.

“I think that I may be, deep down, not a spy but a librarian,” Aftergood told me. “I get a kind of satisfaction from collecting and assembling information and presenting it in an intelligible way. And more than that, I have a kind of an old-fashioned belief in an informed public in making our country work. I think we’re better off having thoughtful disagreements than any possible alternative.”

We can find Aftergood’s counterparts in other areas of digital life, from the Wikipedian army to Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, from Carl Malamud and his Public.Resource.org projects to academic open access expert Peter Suber, who has helped chart the course at Harvard for making more research available online to the public.

Then there’s the Sunlight Foundation. Like many other open-data organizations, it works to obtain, organize and crunch useful government data, providing tools to other organizations and in effect helping to subsidize a broad range of public-transparency work. The world of APIs — application programming interfaces — opens up the possibility of seeing data streams as a form of public infrastructure. “The data that we make available through our API clearly provides a strong underpinning for the field at large, making Sunlight key to the entire infrastructure of the entire field of people interested in open data,” Sunlight cofounder Ellen Miller told me.

The folks who run Open Secrets are in the same camp, as is MuckRock, the freedom of information project. And there are invaluable curators, too, such as Gary Price’s and Shirl Kennedy’s Full Text Reports and numerous digital academic projects in the sciences, social sciences and digital humanities, both old and new — for example, the National Security Archive at George Washington University; the Supreme Court legal archive Oyez, now hosted at Illinois Tech; and Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks.

To their credit, the Obama White House and its teams within OSTP have pushed hard in this direction, with initiatives such as Project Open Data. So have some state governments, counties and cities.

An increasingly capable set of news media players have also been building knowledge infrastructure, not only through accountability reporting and posting data and documents but also through the creation of news apps for the public good. Examples include ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs, the Texas Tribune’s government salary database, NPR’s Shale Play and the New York TimesGuantanamo Docket. All serve the cause of knowledge access and the public interest.

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