On the sidelines of this week’s UN General Assembly, I experienced the “Power of Open.” Across town, at Google’s New York headquarters, I joined other U.S. and foreign government officials, high-tech entrepreneurs and executives, NGO activists as well as public and private donors to support the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

The participants at the meeting were a mix of the converted, long-time leaders in this movement of openness and data, as well as some, like me, who were more skeptical.  And no help: several of us also experienced the power of the wrong address. Perhaps we should have Googled how to get to Google; the address on the conference agenda was incorrect and had us wandering the (not unpleasant) halls of the Chelsea Market.  (At one point, I was directed to an elevator but a guard wouldn’t let me on because I didn’t have the right badge. Not very open.  After pursuing the low-tech approach—ask half a dozen strangers “where is Google?” which sounded like a trick question—I finally found it.)

Once fortified by excellent bagels and lox (the upside of the private-public partnership: food), but still skeptical, I settled in to listen and learn.

Let’s be clear. I am not in favor of opacity; I have been fighting for open societies and increased access to information for over two decades.  And my colleagues literally laugh at my inability to make it through an hour-long meeting without using the word “data.”

But until yesterday, the concept of “Open Government” has struck me as overly broad and unmoored. It seemed to mean everything to some and nothing to many.

I was particularly worried that “Open Government” might be an easy out for authoritarian regimes.  Instead of talking about democracy or human rights, not very nice regimes might gravitate instead toward puffed up pronouncements about how their government had automated the paper procurement process (not that that is bad.)  Would the OGP really have an effect on people’s lives?  And more directly, how did this effort mesh with what we are doing at USAID advancing democracy, human rights, and governance?

I came away a convert.

One of those who helped persuade me was Tom Blanton, familiar to many from his work helping to open the U.S. Government through the declassification of documents at the non-profit National Security Archives. I knew him also through our shared interest in the peer-to-peer work with Russian NGOs like “Memorial” —a long time USAID partner—working to help open archives on the crimes of Stalin.  Tom is on the steering committee of the OGP, and he answered a lot of hard questions about exactly how this work related to what we are doing at USAID.

Tom then introduced me to Jacqueline Peschard, one of the heroines of this movement, who leads in Mexico the Federal Institute of Information Access and the Protection of Data.  (Just hours later, the President of Mexico, speaking after President Obama, gave her a shout out at the Heads of State event that formally launched the OGP.)  Jacqueline helped lead an effort that has changed how Mexico provides information to its citizens, a direct response to one-party rule and years of corruption.  Mexican President Felipe Calderón was crystal clear in his remarks that this work is central to his country’s struggle to democratize.  The Presidents of Brazil and the Philippines, as well as Estonian government officials I spoke with made the same argument.

Back at the Google event, Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha in India, was spell-binding as she described social marketing campaigns she has been leading that “blew up the myth of urban elite apathy.”  One was improbably called “dreams are made by fools,” asking people to self-identify as “fools” to capture their ideas about how to make their cities better and more livable.  Thousands of Indians signed up as “fools” in this new movement.  The other one, launched August 15, 2011, is designed to capture the scale of “retail corruption.”  The simply named “I paid a bribe” campaign asks people to log on and register whether they paid or didn’t pay a bribe when engaging a government official. The campaign also asks about interactions with officials where they were not asked to pay a bribe—to champion the honest officials.  The goal is to generate data on how extensive this retail corruption is in India as well as raise awareness among the population that a shake-down is not acceptable in a democracy.

I ran into several other individuals who made compelling links between the OGP and the larger democratization movement.  The Kenyan government official who talked about the role that social media had played in the August 2010 Constitutional referendum; the Indonesian who talked about how the SMS (also known as text messaging) platform is still critical to social advocacy there; the Estonians who have established an e-governance academy that trains government officials from around the world.
There are issues that the movement needs to address to be most effective including what specific data matter and why?  Apparently www.data.gov.uk has some answers; public data that inform people’s decisions on a daily basis.   But one can imagine that data on revenue streams or police abuse have greater or lesser power in some societies than in others. Context and politics play a role.  What data matter, where and why?  Put another way, how exactly does this openness and data lead to change in people’s lives?

I came away with a belief that we at USAID should work to identify and profile aspects of the OGP that we are already doing but which can gain greater leverage by being lashed up to this larger movement.  A wide swath of our investments could benefit from association with the OGP—from work on accountability for past crimes and historical memory, to fighting corruption, from measuring which governments collect taxes to making sure national resource extraction does not increase conflict, from work with local governments to investments in the use of social media.  One great recent example of the power of data and open government is our newly launched FWD Campaign—in partnership with the Ad Council.  (FWD—stands for Famine, War, Drought: the three major crises that have led to this perfect storm of devastation in the Horn of Africa.)  FWD is our call to action—that people get informed, get engaged and forward this information to their friends and families. If you go to FWD,  you’ll see a number of new ways we are informing and engaging with people.

All to say that the OGP is about engaging with regular people and civil society as much as with governments.   As one participant noted, governments don’t make good data applications.  People do.  Together, we make the power of open.