As much as I am loathe to paraphrase that clichéd Ben Parker quote, I had a nightmare a few nights ago that made me worry about the good work we do here at TOPP Labs. There was nothing specific about it that worried me, but I did have a general sense of foreboding and unease about the tasks that we're taking on and the responsibilities they entail.
But first, an anecdote… There was a time in the mid-20th century when progressive voices saw community boards as a tool for bringing community-based planning to neighborhoods throughout New York City. The most optimistic of them saw this as a way to curb the excesses of the centrally-planned urban policy that had scarred neighborhoods from East Tremont to Bay Ridge under the leadership of Robert Moses and others. Many progressive activists today, especially those within the livable streets movement, see the community boards as at best ineffective and and at worst obstacles. The failure of community boards to effect change is often laid at the feet of the community boards—either because of flaws in their design, as was the case with the Atlantic Yards project, or because of a lack of members, funding, technology, and training. While many have looked to community boards as a voice for “the community,” others argue that the system does not effectively facilitate community-based planning and may even serve to hinder it.
As we move towards encouraging open government and increased transparency, I wonder if we're not being sufficiently critical about the tools we are building. Just as free access to government data enables us to build tools to encourage progressive change, it also enables others to cripple the machinery of government or hijack them towards ends we cannot foresee and wouldn't necessarily support. Tools like Uncivil Servants, which allow progressive transportation advocates to underscore parking permit abuse and push for reform could just as easily be reconfigured to highlight the abuses of cyclists and push for policy changes with which progressives would disagree.
Just as activists on the right are now concerned about being surveilled by the very systems which they built, we should be careful with our own efforts. As we build tools, create processes, and establish precedents designed to affect how government operates we—and the entire open government movement—should be mindful of the potential unintended consequences of our actions and take responsibility for correcting for them as best we can.