This year, popular demand for transparency in government is reaching critical mass, with movements like Occupy, WikiLeaks, and Anonymous working to hold politicians accountable for their actions. But what about the average politically engaged citizen interested in keeping tabs on a specific agency or taxpayer-funded initiative? They’re forced to endure a lengthy application process for requesting information, which can take more than a year. And that’s if they even know where to begin looking.
Metahaven, the theory-driven graphic design duo behind the Sealand Identity Project, wants to change that. Working with artist Jonas Staal, Metahaven partners Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk have designed an application that will give ordinary citizens complete access to all documents in use by the Dutch government. "The amount of time invested daily by politically aware citizens using social media, online forums indicates there’s no lack of willingness for political participation," they explain in an introductory video. "We just need a tool to enable us to do so directly."
Their tool is called Nulpunt ("Point Zero," in English). The team describes it as "a cross between WikiLeaks and social media." In practice, Nulpunt is a bit like subscribing to the RSS feed of your favorite blog: You register, decide what topics you’re interested in (war in Iraq, health care, etc.), and then access your dashboard, where an inbox of relevant documents awaits. Using a toolbox that allows the highlighting of specific paragraphs and details in a document, users can distribute their findings through third-party applications like Facebook or Twitter.
Nulpunt was prompted by a new Freedom of Information Act currently being drafted in Dutch parliament, which will make every government document immediately available to the public. "This mechanism we call the Leaking State," the trio tell Co.Design. The Leaking State is their term for a completely transparent government—where public access to information is the right of every citizen. But with the new law (or WOB, as it’s abbreviated in Dutch) will come a new problem: Citizens will have access to thousands of databases, but they won’t necessarily know how to parse information from them. "How will citizens be able to use the information that is stored in the database?," wonders van der Velden. "We developed the idea of Nulpunt: a web platform which applies the mechanism of social media to the new WOB database," helping the average citizen engage in the massive amount of data that will soon be accessible. "It’s a digital parliament, where we control and shape our politics."
The development of Nulpunt will take place over the next year, and the team is already looking to export the app to other countries. "Iceland already has a far-reaching transparency law with regard to its own government documents and indeed, we are collaborating with IMMI, the Reykjavik-based think tank which initiated these reforms, to see if something like 0. could be launched in Iceland," says van der Velden. "Obviously, it is much harder to reform an existing bureaucracy than to build a better one from scratch, and therefore we are also keen to initiate 0. as a development tool in emerging states." For van der Velden and Kruk, the project delves deeper into research they’ve been doing for nearly a decade, focusing on the physical and virtual armatures of national governments. "This is our contribution to the only concept of democracy we deem right," they explain. "A democracy without secrets."