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Defending Clunkers with a Data Dump

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 9 2009

CARS.gov, the Department of Transportation's online home for its Cash-for Clunkers program, has posted the raw data on the nearly 700,000 cars that were traded in during the course of the month-long program. (via Paul Blumenthal)

There's an interesting subtext here that goes beyond a simple government data dump. Cash for Clunkers is one of the financial revitalization projects that the Obama Administration is most desperately interested in having the public embrace as a proactive, forward-thinking, and innovative solution to a sticky economic problem. Cash for Clunkers is one simple, voter-friendly victory the Obama White House thinks it can reliably point to as evidence of its vision. What the Obama White House and the extended executive branch are really worried about is that what they see as the enormous success of the problem dies a death of a thousand cuts, slowly weakened by the blog chatter and other online doubting that "Clunkers" has attracted, particularly from conservatives. That accumulation of doubt is potentially as damaging as a direct hit, and the Obama White House sees Cash for Clunkers as an ally whose reputation it has to protect with all the tactics it knows.

That's why we see the White House blog going toe-to-toe with the automotive website Edmunds.com, not traditionally considered a worthy sparring partner of the President of the United States. Think of it as a "broken window theory" approach to the new media environment. And that's why we see the Secretary of the Treasury himself high-fiving the White House blog for challenging Edmunds' analysis of the utility of the clunkers program. "A big 'Thank you' to the White House blog team for a witty and perceptive account of Cash for Clunkers' real contribution to our economic recovery," blogged Ray LaHood.

Someone intimately familiar with the White House's thinking on its approach to the new media environment explained why the Obama Administration is pursuing such a tactic. Part of what makes the Internet valuable to the Obama operation, the thinking goes, is that suddenly the White House isn't quite so utterly dependent on the traditional press' interpretation of what the White House is up to on a day-to-day basis. Administration officials aren't so limited to giving a reporter a quote or delivering an answer at a press conference and then seeing what the mainstream media makes of it. That's appealing to an Obama White House that, like many White Houses, is skeptical of just how good the press' intentions are. The web doesn't just offer the benefit of spin. The Internet's environment of abundance and direct connection to its audience means that the White House can not only put out information into the new media ecosystem, back it with heaps of background materials, and then attach to it its own meaning of that data, or quote, or new policy change.

Take White House ethics watchdog Norm Eisen's recent blog post on the release of the White House visitor logs that contain the names of such politically-charged visitors as the minister Jeremiah Wright and the filmmaker Michael Moore. But with the podium of the White House blog, Eisen can not only make those records public but also craft what the White House thinks is the proper interpretation of them. There's less of a need today to rely on professional reporters to see things accurately, or to handle nuance correctly.

When Eisen released the first batch of the White House visitor logs, for example, he offered instructions on how to interpret the new abundance of information the White House was releasing into the world. "Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few 'false positives' -- names," like those of Wright and Moore, "that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else." When it comes to Cash for Clunkers, the Obama Administration also isn't taking any chances. Alongside the XLS and CSV files that the administration hopes will be used to bolstered its case about how successful Cash for Clunkers was is a "Note to Analysts" with helpful instructions on how to best make sense of the new information. (Photo credit: ThreadedThoughts)

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