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Accountability Data, Remixed: White House Launches Ethics.gov

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, March 8 2012

The White House today announced Ethics.gov, a portal the Obama administration is using to consolidate seven sets of data related to elections or influence all in one place.

Ethics.gov redirects to a subdomain of Data.gov, the administration's open data portal. On that page, the White House has pulled together sets it acknowledges were already publicly available — White House visitor logs, Office of Government Ethics travel report, Lobbying Disclosure Act data, Department of Justice Foreign Agent Registration Act data, Federal Election Commission individual contribution reports, and FEC candidate and commitee reports — to be accessible through its Socrata-powered portal.

The Sunlight Foundation's John Wonderlich* writes, "... the President is acknowledging the role of public oversight, and asserting that the President has a responsibility to create meaningful online disclosure of ethics and influence information. That's a new role for the President, and one we're glad to see the White House struggling through, especially because it's a role Sunlight has tried to play as much as possible."

It's unclear if the administration intends to update these datasets as new releases become available. FEC data is updated on one schedule, visitor logs another and lobbying data on yet another, for example.

This takes several datasets that were previously more difficult to get to and makes them more accessible and easier to use. Firstly, people who may not have known about these data now do, and have a chance to see what each dataset includes.

Data that makes it into Socrata is easier to download or to use in a web application than, for example, FEC data often is. There are steps one needs to take to clean up these data before they are usable for any kind of analysis, and getting them through Socrata cuts down on the number. On the other hand, the data pass through another set of hands that are not a researcher's own before reaching that researcher — and because that set of hands does not belong to the person originating the data, it makes them less reliable.

This announcement comes after an academic paper released last week called into question the Obama administration's open government efforts, arguing that what the administration meant by "open government" and what advocates might expect it means — namely, transparency into the inner workings of government and the relationships that might influence decision making — are not the same.

Legislation now wending its way through the House and Senate, called the DATA Act, would fundamentally alter the way the federal government tracks and reports its finances. Among other things, it would oblige all federal agencies to report spending using a single electronic reporting standard, to a single government agency, using a single set of codes for things like corporations or grant programs. (Currently, agencies have differing reporting codes and in same cases use different standards to refer to the same corporations or programs.) The same day the DATA Act was announced, the White House announced the creation of the Government Accountability and Transparency Board, intended to be a successor to a board with a similar name that was tasked with tracking Recovery Act spending.

The first chairman of GATB, Earl Devaney, left last year. On his way out, he advocated that the DATA Act, which has bipartisan support, be passed.

The Obama administration also helped to spearhead the creation of the Open Government Partnership, an international group of countries that have committed to work together to make their governments more open, transparent and participatory. OGP member states will meet at an annual conference in April.

This post has been updated.
* PDM's Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.