Open Access to Government Data Will Spur Big Thinking: 'Citizenville'

Robin Abcarian
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Gavin Newsom’s is a boosterish approach: Get government out of the way and let entrepreneurs figure out how to use the reams of data collected by government agencies. By creating apps, mostly.

Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 272 pages
Author: Gavin Newsom, Lisa Dickey
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-07

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a lot more time on his hands than he used to.

When he was San Francisco mayor, from 2004 to 2011, Newsom was busy, busy, busy. He (briefly) legalized gay marriage. He helped reform the city’s generous welfare cash payment program. He worked on universal healthcare. His messy personal life provided endless fodder for a mercilessly snarky local press.

These days, Newsom has slipped below the radar. (Old Sacramento joke: What does the lieutenant governor do? He wakes up and reads the paper. If the governor is not dead, he goes back to sleep.)

So how does an ambitious pol like Newsom keep a public profile when the office he occupies resembles less a launching pad and more a dead end? Last year, Newsom tried television, hosting a wonky talk show on Al Gore’s Current TV. In early January, the same week Gore sold the network to Al Jazeera, Newsom announced he’d be parting ways with Current.

Now, in the tradition of politicians treading water between gigs, Newsom, 45, has written his first book. It’s neither a political treatise nor a memoir (which could have been a juicy read considering his once-scandal-plagued but glittering personal life, battles with dyslexia, brutal San Francisco political battles and business success as a restaurateur, winemaker and hotelier). Instead, it’s a look at how digital tools are changing the way citizens interact with government.

The topic seems a natural for a politician who came up in the shadow of Silicon Valley, ran one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country and seems to enjoy rubbing elbows with the country’s most innovative tech thinkers.

Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, co-written with Lisa Dickey, is a survey of Internet experts, digital thinkers and grass-roots activists who advance lots of ideas and examples — some very compelling — about how allowing government data to be culled and creatively used by entrepreneurs can make government more transparent, lead to a more engaged citizenry and just make life more all-around convenient ... and fun. (The title is a play on the popular social networking game, FarmVille, where players create virtual crops, tend virtual barnyards and annoy their Facebook friends.)

“The future is sharing — open data, open participation, open source, open everything,” Newsom writes. “And it must happen at every level.”

For instance: Oakland’s crime-tracking website, Crimewatch, was outdated and virtually useless. So Mike Magurski, a Web designer, decided to create a scraping tool that would mine the city’s public data and allow him to create an interactive crime data site that anyone could use. Did the city of Oakland thank him? No, it tried to thwart him, but in the end it relented.

“Oakland,” writes Newsom, “got a free gift from a motivated citizen.”

Then there’s tech veteran Jennifer Pahlka, who came up with the idea of Code for America, inspired by the altruistic spirit of Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Working with forward-thinking cities, Code for America identifies government problems, then recruits Web developers and designers to come up with solutions: It has created a map for Boston that shows snowbound fire hydrants so locals can dig them out in case of emergency. And there’s a program for parents that uses GPS to track school buses.

Newsom’s is a boosterish approach: Government openness can result only in improved civic life. Get government out of the way and let entrepreneurs figure out how to use the reams of data collected by government agencies. By creating apps, mostly.

It’s hard to argue with the adage that information equals power, and the impulse behind this book is good, even necessary. But the book is marred by Newsom’s streak of self-pity and self-serving explanations about how he often failed to practice what he is now preaching when he was mayor. (Marred? Oh, who am I kidding? These passages are among the most entertaining in the book as Newsom struggles to keep a straight face as he attempts to square his high-minded information über alles imperative with his venal political side.)

With at least some self-awareness on display, he revisits his disastrous (tech-inspired) decision to stretch his 2008 State of the City speech into several lengthy online speeches, which drew entirely apt comparisons to Fidel Castro’s long-windedness. He quotes the fabulous headline from one writer’s review: “YouTube equals MeBored.”

He spearheaded the creation of a program called SFStat, “to show them we were serious about making ourselves accountable and cleaning up government.” He writes: “Civil service, pension, budgets, technology — we put everything out on the table for the public to see, in hopes of shining a light on what needed improving.”

Yet when a local paper, using information gleaned from SFStat, notes that city overtime pay was up, Newsom accuses the paper of scandal mongering. Isn’t the whole point of releasing such data to let taxpayers know that overtime in their city is up 12 percent?

Likewise, Newsom embraced transparency in his own office — but only in theory.

He directed his staff to put his calendar online. “Even your fund-raising meetings?” asked his chief of staff. “And that stopped me dead,” Newsom writes.

The episode led to what he deemed an unfair accusation by the San Francisco Chronicle that he was withholding information. “The Chronicle’s rush to accuse us of wrongdoing is the perfect example of another reason why politicians are reluctant to give up information: It often ends up being used against them,” Newsom writes.

You’re either for transparency in government or you aren’t. Once it’s out in the open, trying to control how information is used is as foolish as trying to hold back a dam once it’s sprung a leak. Or a WikiLeak.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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