How are networked transparency systems reducing risks and creating accountability?

Cries for increased “transparency” has become a rallying cry across industries and governments, as consumers and citizens look for more information about what they’re eating, buying, breathing, drinking or how they are being governed. What “does transparency” means, and for whom?

Targeting transparency can have unexpected outcomes, particularly as humans and societies adopt and adapt novel technologies to suit their needs or goals. For instance, research at Northwestern found hospital report cards could actually decrease patient welfare. The dynamics of transparency are complex, given that systems for reporting may reveal corruption, fraud or abuse by powerful interests but can also expose people to retribution or discrimination.

[Radiation plumes in Japan]
[Radiation plumes in Japan]

“The challenge is to create and design transparency policies that actually work for people and don’t just waste time or create a bunch of information that’s difficult to understand or make organizations go through the fairly expensive processes of collecting information that nobody then goes on to use,” said professor Archon Fung, in a recent interview. “The policy challenge has to do with designing transparency policies so that they produce information that is actually highly valuable to people and that people can take action on.”

Many of the perils and promise of transparency have been explored at length in “Full Disclosure,” by the directors of the Ash Center’s Transparency Policy Project, from calorie counts to restaurant inspections. As is so often the case, such research raises as many questions as it answers. When and how do consumers respond to new information? What factors influence whether private companies respond to disclosure mandates by reducing the risks posed to consumers or improving practices? Where and when should policy makers apply disclosure versus other policy tools?

The answers to all of these questions are further complicated by the introduction of networked systems for communication and disclosure, particularly the emergence of powerful mobile devices and social media. The Ash Center is actively looking for examples of socially networked transparency systems that reduce risks and provide new tools for citizens and consumers to navigate the world. Examples of networked transparency include:

  • hospital ratings by individuals that may help other patients avoid the risk of medical error or infections
  • Websites like PatientsLikeMe that may provide earlier warning of drug side effects, safety or effectiveness problems
  • Civic media services like Safecast, which leverage citizen science and public data to inform the public about radiation risks
  • Data sources like Google Flu Trends, where the actions of individuals provide tacit information that can augment existing systems for early warning of outbreaks

In each of these examples, the collective actions of many individuals reporting information based on their experience, aggregations of reliable reports, or sensor data is collected and then disseminated in a way that makes the associated risks to the public risk more visible and transparent. Such networked transparency systems can then be adapted and used to inform individual choices or change behaviors of the entities creating the risks, saving lives or reducing harms.

Over the next several months, the Transparency Policy Project will be looking for more examples of networked transparency, from grassroots efforts created by public laboratories to reporting systems created by governments.

As you’d imagine, the people collaborating on the research (including the fellow writing this post) will be looking for tips, feedback, comments and links from you. Please email your ideas or pointers to alexanderbhoward [at] gmail.com, or reply to @digiphile or @sunshinepolicy on Twitter. Each week, we’ll gather together what we’ve learned to date and share a digest at this blog.

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