“Patches Welcome”

It’s a phrase you’ll hear often in the open source community: “patches welcome”. It’s sometimes earnest, sometimes passive-aggressive. It’s a cultural norm that’s tough but fair: you’ve voiced an opinion, and now you need to back up that opinion with working code. Without code, it’s just a distraction. It’s an important component of what makes these communities work. Words like “wrong”, “no”, and “impossible” are anathema to collaboration and progress. An environment that encourages productive work, risk, and lots of small bets, will drive innovation.

With this in mind, I’ll direct you to Tom Lee’s excellent and considered response to my previous post on Sunlight’s newly aggressive stance on quality government data. Would that every conversation on the Internet were this civilized. I have the greatest respect for Sunlight, and really like Tom personally. I was pretty critical of Sunlight’s approach, and after reading Tom’s piece and some further reflection, I’d like to refine my position.

I sympathize with Sunlight. It is frustrating to work so hard, and be so close to your goal, only to be confounded by bad data, irrelevant redesigns, and a recalcitrant bureaucracy. Sunlight has done the right thing here by doing real and substantial work — a very welcome patch in the form of the ClearSpending project. This is a sterling example of what the Open Government movement is supposed to be about: citizens and government working together to improve accountability and the quality of the government’s services.

Sunlight deserves extra credit for making their own auditing process transparent, which allows for even more thoughtful, considered analysis by others. An old professor of mine, Steve Kass of Drew University, has raised some great questions about the ClearSpending methodology. Again, this is what productive conversation looks like, and it’s all for the good.

Without ClearSpending, Sunlight risked becoming another shrill, marginalized scold. Instead, they did the tedious analysis and hard work, and come by their exasperated position honestly. Rather than saying “wrong”, “no”, and “impossible”, they’ve used ClearSpending to provide USAspending.gov with hard data and a clear set of recommendations for improvement.

So while Tom and I disagree on the utility of shaming agencies into action, Sunlight, more than most, has earned the right to do it.