Fighting Taxation Without Information: Interview with Eric Odom
Eric Odom talks to us about how the Sam Adams Alliance is using open source software to bring transparency to the corners of American democracy that often go overlooked.
Jed Sundwall: What is the stated mission of the Sam Adams Alliance?
Eric Odom: The Sam Adams Alliance has existed for a year and a half. It's a 501(c)3 that focuses and education and information and it also has 501(c)4 because of our work across the country with activists and leadership training.
Our overall objective is to combat taxation without information. We're working on collaborative efforts to provide information to voters and activists across the country. We focus on transparency, open records, leveraging the Freedom of Information Act, and those sorts of things.
When did you get started with the Sam Adams Alliance?
I came out here to Chicago on November 1st. I'd been self employed before that, running Fresh Vision Media, doing online strategy, community development, social media and those sorts of things. I was also contracted for a while by Citizen Outreach.
I felt like I needed to be involved with an organization that wasn't tied to republicans or democrats, but was more about open source and transparent government. That was appealing to me, but another thing that excited me was that the leadership here is more than willing to let me and my colleagues here advance all the ideas we have to promote transparency through online social media tools. They're not necessarily experts in social media or online advocacy, but they're very open to doing whatever they can to promote transparency. It was an opportunity for me to take the expertise that I'd developed in the for profit world and apply it in an effort to educate people.
So Sam Adams did not begin as a tech centric initiative.
Not at all. There were some folks here with tech backgrounds, but we hadn't been using tech tools to advance anything online until recently. We've spent the past 6 months studying social media and online collaborative tools in order to figure out how to best use them.
What are your largest initiatives?
Our three biggest projects are the Wiki based projects: Ballotpedia, Judgepedia and Sunshine Review. We're finding that more and more voters and citizen activists are going to the internet for information, and there's currently a void of non-partisan or crowd-powered open information available. One of the things we try to do is fill that void by following Wikipedia's model and embracing open source principles.
Ballotpedia is a wiki project covering everything initiative and referendum related. Judgepedia provides crowd-powered biographies on every judge and candidate for judicial races. Sunshine Review provides transparency information and Freedom of Information Act type information at state and local levels of government.
Any notable successes?
The recent election in California on June 2nd featured two propositions, Propositions 98 and 99, that were covered in depth by Ballotpedia users. We consider it a tremendous success. Our page on Proposition 98 had up to 100 differing users editing it. Google had ranked the page above the Wikipedia page and above the California Secretary of State page in search results for Proposition 98. During the election, our page was ranked #1 and our page received more than 16,000 unique visitors to that page on the day of the election.
Not only was it non-partisan, but the editors were careful to link to their sources. Everyone who landed on the page was welcome to edit the page or add information to it.
So it was fully open?
Which social media tools have you found to be the most useful?
MediaWiki is huge for us. We use a lot of WordPress, in particular WordPress MU. We have a blogging site called Bolgivists that runs very similarly to WordPress.com. We run the blogging site to allow any limited government activist to have their own blog and contribute to a large blogging community. There are well over 200 bloggers that are fairly active on there. We also make good use of Joomla and Pligg. So you can see that we're big fans of open source software.
What is your rationale for embracing open source software?
I believe in the power of crowds. I recently read about an agricultural fair in which a prize was offered to anyone who could guess the weight of a cow on display. No one guessed the exact weight of the cow, but when they averaged everyone's guesses, the crowd was spot on.
We've found that the software that best fits our needs is software that has been created through mass collaboration. And we find that we can use the same strategy with information as well. People fret about the accuracy of Wikipedia, but the fact is that everyone uses it. Google loves it, and no one complains when search results serve up a Wikipedia page because it provides the information they're looking for.
I assume that your philosophy on what makes good software transfers over to your philosophy on what makes good laws as well.
Absolutely. A good example of this is Barack Obama's campaign. You can see the vast difference between his website and John McCain's. Obama's website is run from the bottom up. For instance, there are social networks on there for people who enjoy cooking in Chicago. There are options to receive information via text messageâ€”about events or Obama's schedule. The entire site is ran on the idea of mass collaboration. I believe that's the direction that government's going to go as well.
Whenever people gather and demand information and that information is provided, change happens. That's what we're striving to help people do.
How do you propose to get people involved with these projects?
This is a long term goal for us. First, we have to provide enough information. We're going with a long tail philosophy that makes us prefer 10,000 pages that get 2 to 10 daily visits than one page that gets thousands of daily visits. The challenge is to make sure that those 2 to 10 visitors find something that they didn't know about that spurs them into action. If we're lucky it will make them go to a city council meeting. If it's a wiki, they might be able to add their own knowledge to it.
The first step for us is providing the information. We believe that when the information is made available, people will act.
Tell us more about Judgepedia.
It attracts a completely different crowd than Ballotpedia. Judgepedia users are looking for specific names of judges or judicial candidates. There is currently very little information available on judges, and the search engines usually serve up really old information. There's no way to find information on rulings that you might care about.
We're trying to provide relevant information about these officials. We notice that the people who visit the pages on Judgepedia bounce around a lot, so we know that they're looking hard for more information. We're also seeing a trend of people printing and using the information on there. We hope that the activity we're seeing on there will translate to more activism at the polls.
I'm looking forward to something like Fire-chief-pedia. I'm amazed at how many people we're expected to vote for without having any idea who they are.
This is exactly why money has been so successful in politics. There's so little information available, so elections are won by whoever can afford the flashiest yard signs and TV commercials, neither of which have any useful information about the candidates.