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Dangerous Data Perfectionism

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 10 2010

Here's another take on this question of what quality of openness and transparency it's reasonable for us to expect from government, this from Gunnar Hellekson. As Chief Technology Strategist for the domestic public sector group of the open-source company Red Hat, Hellekson's in a good position to evaluate the Obama administration's progress thus far. Hellekson argues that the complaints made by the Sunlight Foundation's Ellen Miller earlier this week about the level of the data being put out by the Obama administration are off the mark:

I love quality data as much as the next person, but this is a perfect example of treating government as a vending machine, and it’s poisonous. In 19 months, citizens have access to more data than they ever had before. In some agencies, it takes an average of 43 months to get a new project off the ground. The fact that the US government is even attempting this is amazing. ...

Sunlight has, I think, dangerously conflated transparency for reform. You get transparency first, and that compels reform. That’s the whole point. You don’t ask for perfection right out of the gate, it’s unreasonable. 

Read the whole thing.

But I suspect Miller might say that she's just doing her job, and that her complaints go beyond just data to include unfulfilled promises and suspect staffing choices. Even "good guy groups," as one Hill staffer I know calls outside advocates sympathetic to the aims of reformers inside government, aren't simply extensions of government. The Sunlight Foundation likely sees what it's doing as prodding the Obama administration in the direction that it want it to go, like you do with a horse. Unpleasant, maybe. But the horse goes where you want it to go.

Or call it tough love, in what is the toddlerhood of the data-driven open government movement. I happens that yesterday I finished reading Open, Andre Agassi's rather good autobiography. Agassi's dad used to pelt him with 2,500 a day, when he was only five or six years old, forcing him to perfect his return game. Andre hated it. He hated his dad for it. He also managed to win scores of Grand Slams, many of which came after the players he'd come up with in tennis had long since retired.

Anyway, back to data. Maybe we'll hear more from Miller. Until then you might want to go back and read the full text of her remarks on why she's disappointed in the Obama administration's open government efforts this far.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.

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