One feature we’re asked about occasionally is comments. Currently, where and how you can comment on MuckRock is very, very limited:
While we’ve greatly appreciated the feedback, support and ideas we’ve received on the blog via comments and through UserVoice, we very specifically wanted to minimize discussions about the documents and data itself happening on our site. What we’ve found is that a lot of sites with active commenting communities end up having, well, low-value comments.
On the other hand, we truly believe that data without context is only a very small part of the story, and it’s our community members and the wider web that can help give the documents we help publish that context, whether it’s proper statistical analysis, an inventive mash-up, a local understanding or simply a personal anecdote to make it come alive. So we’ve launched an experiment where we highlight the stories, blog posts and other media that mentions the documents and data we’re serving up.
We believe this does a few really valuable things.
1) It helps our community understand the data more fully. If a reader comes and reads through, for example, the 2009 Somerville Campaign Finance Reports, they’re not seeing the whole story. Not by a long shot. Did the interests who donated to various officials benefit from their relationship? Did a sudden change of vote coincide with a $2,000 donation, or does a politician have a personal relationship with their official campaign caterer? None of this is obvious in the documents, so we’re delighted to partner with organizations like Post Somerville who provide the expertise that is needed to answer these questions.
2) It sets the bar for discourse a little higher. Sure, not every blog is a winner. But blogging does require a more concerted effort and energy than drive-by comment sniping, and we believe that even for anonymous blogs that have a following, when they write something they stake a bit of their reputation on it. We believe this leads our community with less noise and more thought-provoking writing, no matter the viewpoint from which its based.
3) You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. A few years ago, a book entitled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society came out, with the central tenet that in today’s world, there’s so much information that one group of people can cherry pick the facts they wish to base its world view on, while another group can cherry pick its own facts and have not only different opinions, but a fundamentally different understanding of what the truth actually is. The thesis is, fittingly, true enough, but one we believe is worth fighting against. By supporting different interpretations about a single source of facts, we hope we allow others to debate interpretations while agreeing on at least some fundamentals surrounding their debate. We believe the SNAP data we released was a perfect example: Some commenters argued the costs were driven up by fraud; others, by lack of opportunities. Both hypothesis are quite possible, but at least we can now examine the extent of the problem from some neutral ground and, hopefully, make more rational decisions based on it.
4) Tis better to give than receive. Finally, we think we’re simply being good net citizens. Jeff Jarvis has regularly argued, in his discussion of the “link economy,” that Internet users return to where they’re sent from. See: Google’s early days, when it was a plain search box, with one of two buttons kicking you off their site immediately to some (hopefully) useful destination. We believe that if we become the best resource for finding not only interesting government documents, but excellent explanation of those documents, our community will grow.
Right now, our implementation is fairly crude: A simple trackback mechanism (see left) on every document page that that highlights websites that use MuckRock data. As we develop MuckRock’s features, however, we hope to provide better functionality to send you to the best analysis, both from the original requester and from other sources who might have a particular credibility in that department, whether it’s a statistician, journalist or everyday citizen who knows the neighborhood like the back of his hand.
If you have thoughts or ideas, we’d love to hear them. In the meantime, keep the conversation going.