March 16 is the birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, whom some say was an early advocate for transparency in our government. In his honor, March 16 is now celebrated as Freedom of Information Day by the American Library Association and a coalition of other organizations. Some advocates have expanded the day into a Sunshine Week, which runs from March 13 to March 19 this year.
If you are interested in learning more about transparency in government, a great place to begin is the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes accountability through policy, technology, and reporting. The Sunlight Foundation’s tech tools include the Congress mobile app, which puts information about your representatives in the palm of your hand, and Political Party Time, which tracks political fundraising events. A similar organization, the OpenGov Foundation, offers The Madison Project, an online tool that legislators can use to share bills as they’re being written and solicit input from constituents.
In the digital age, government agencies are responding to calls for transparency by making data available online. To learn how this trend got its start right in our backyard, check out Chapter 2 of the online publication Beyond Transparency, written by Brett Goldstein, the former Chief Data Officer of the City of Chicago. You might also want to delve into Chicago’s open data portal and/or the federal government’s Data.gov.
As for books and movies to help you celebrate Freedom of Information Day, look no further than the Lincolnwood Library’s shelves. The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, a 2015 book by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, is a gripping account of what can happen when a state does not embrace transparency in the digital age. And Truth, the 2015 movie starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, is based on the actual experience of a CBS News team trying to expose records that the White House wanted to keep behind closed doors.
Whether you dive into the depths with data or take a bird’s eye view, spend a moment today recognizing the hard work of those who advocate for freedom of information.