is a revolutionary new website which creates some amazing opportunities for enterprising journalists, bloggers, and citizens to ask questions in public and among friends about our state government and back them up with facts.

How and why? The how is simple: Sponsored by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the website provides a powerful, usable search engine which allows for thousands of public records to be searched on a variety of metrics. From state employee salaries to state payments to outside contractors, citizens can access a variety of information previously difficult to obtain, or unavailable altogether.

The why is equally simple: Transparency and accountability, two forces which are not only severely lacking in almost every government enterprise, but which can be powerful change agents for citizens to hold their elected (and non-elected) officials accountable.

Anybody with an internet connection (or access to a library) can search for patterns- or even single instances- of data, and use that information to tell their friends, publish it on a blog, or contact their representative(s).

This is big stuff, people of Maine- I hope to dive more into it in the coming weeks, and I encourage other Maine citizens to do the same. It’s at– give it a minute of your time today, even out of curiosity’s sake.

And on a side note, how have I not heard of the Maine Heritage Policy Center before? Judging by the MaineOpenGov site, as well as their organizational website, they are definitely an organization to watch, right in our own backyard.

I’m testing a new Nikon D80

As mentioned by other bloggers, I am participating in a new blogger outreach program courtesy of Nikon USA and a PR firm, MWW Group. Nikon has loaned me a Nikon D80 digital SLR camera for a six month period beginning Thursday, when I received the camera and a lens (along with standard accessories and a 1GB memory card) in the mail.

What are the terms of the program?
At the end of the six-month loan period, I may purchase the camera (at an “editorial discount”), extend my loan for six months, or return the camera. To get me going, MWW Group has offered a 30-minute training session in person or on the phone.

In their welcome letter offering me to participate in the program, Nikon stated that they expect no explicit published mentions of my use of the camera; only that I disclose my participation in the program when mentioning my use of the camera, which of course is what they should require following last year’s Microsoft laptop PR debacle. Kudos to Nikon and MWW Group for a stated commitment to transparency (View a JPG of their invitation letter).

While we’re on the topic of disclosure, it’s important to note that I’ve had a previous working relationship with Tom Biro, Senior Director for New Media Strategies at MWW Group (the agency handling this outreach program). I’ve known Tom since 2004, when we both began serving on the Board of the Media Bloggers Association.

How am I going to use the camera?
If you check out my Flickr photostream, you’ll see that my wife Heidi and I are currently taking around 20 photos per week and uploading around 5-10 pictures a week to Flickr with our current camera, a Kodak EasyShare CX7430. For starters, we’ll attempt to switch over to the Nikon D80 almost exclusively for family and personal photos, about 40% of which make it up to our Flickr account (the rest live on our hard drive).

In addition, we’ll also be using the camera in conjunction with an as-yet-unfinished personal project that combines blogging and photography and will be launching within the next two weeks.

Finally, I may share comments and/or reviews of the camera here on this site. You should know that my perspective is as a technologist who is interested in trying and mastering tools, such as this camera, but that as a photographer I am squarely amateur. So at least in the early stages, my comments will likely revolve around making the shift from a mid-level consumer device to a power-user camera and whatever learning curve comes along with that.

If you have any questions or comments about the program or my and other bloggers’ participation in it, please share them in the comments.