A week after the Newtown massacre, The Journal News published an interactive Google Map with the names and addresses of gun permit owners in select New York cities. The bold move has escalated into a transparency arms race, after a Connecticut lawyer posted the phone number and addresses of the Journal‘s staff, including a Google Maps satellite Image of the Publisher’s home. “I don’t know whether the Journal’s publisher Janet Hasson is a permit holder herself, but here’s how to find her to ask,” read Christopher Fountain’s blog post. The double irony here is that open data was heralded as a tool of enlightened civic dialog, and has been co-opted for fierce partisanship, bordering on public endangerment.
The Journal‘s original publication of the map sparked nationwide outrage and thousands of angry comments. Gun permit holding is public information in New York, and can be acquired through a mere request via the Freedom of Information Act. But, coming on the heels of the Newtown shooting, the publication had a clear provocative intent. “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information,” said a defiant Hasson.
Given that the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in the school shooting was reportedly legally registered with the killer’s mother, the Google Map sparked a debate about whether gun owners should be labeled like other potential menaces to society, “The implications are mind-boggling,” said Marine Scott F. Williams to The Journal News, “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”
Blogger Christopher Fountain took the debate into his own hands, publishing the personal information of The Journals‘ staff. “Hundreds of thousands of readers; Janet, you have a great Christmas Eve,” he wrote, after a popular political outlet, Instapundit, linked to his post.
Ironically, the promise of open data was supposed to lead to open-minded discussion. “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects,” reads the often-cited quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who stands a champion to modern-day nonprofits fighting for greater access to health, legislative, and administrative government data.
Open data advocates have struggled to get media attention for their utopian vision of automated government services. This latest use of open data via Google Maps, both to publish gun permit ownership and journalists’ geolocation data, seems to have hit the media sweet spot, as it plays into our debased partisan interests. It appears that transparency lends itself equally to being both a tool of democracy or a partisan weapon.