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Sell Obama stimulus and create new transparency era by democratizing data

BY W. David Stephenson | Thursday, January 8 2009

The fiscal crisis reminds me of wei ji, the Chinese ideogram for crisis. It combines the ones for danger (no kidding!) and for opportunity, a little less hard to fathom right now.

The need to sell President-elect Obama’s stimulus package to a dubious Republican minority and to the public, both still steamed at how banks failed to account for the bailout money, creates one such opportunity: launching a new era of transparency.

Transparency was already an Obama priority. Done right, as the District of Columbia is demonstrating already under CTO Vivek Kundra (a possible Obama CTO), it can also pay other critical benefits responding to the current crisis, including increased governmental efficiency and a new creative partnership between the public and government.
The technological means exist to make transparency a reality immediately, by a new approach to the data government accumulates and, in the past, tended to leave buried in massive databases.

Instead, we must “democratize” this data, creating a seamless loop that makes it automatically available to those who need it when and where they need it, in forms they can use, and with the freedom to use it as they choose.

For example, the various positions on the stimulus package can be laid out side-by-side for all to examine and fine tune before passage (see for examples). Any funding can require the recipients to report, in real-time, and in ways that are easy to scrutinize, how they spend the funds. That should help both diminish objections to the stimulus package and make it more effective.
Democratizing data can be easily done. As it is gathered, “tag” the numbers with XML or KML tags that make the data machine readable and easily retrieved, plus automatic syndication (similar to blog feeds) so that recipients are automatically and instantly updated whenever data changes.

Obama endorsed making government data “available online in universally accessible formats,” during the campaign, mainly as a transparency step. The District of Columbia’s experience demonstrates that if agencies must make structured data available as a part of a transparency initiative, so watchdog groups, the media, and public can examine it; they can also use it creatively at little additional time or expense to:

  • in many cases for the first time) give rank-and-file federal employees the real-time information they need (much of it also location-specific, so it can be plotted on Google Maps and be even more valuable) to do their jobs more efficiently. Sharing data breaks down “silos” isolating agencies and facilitates collaborative approaches to cut costs and improve delivery of services. When DC did this, a program to get 6,000 computers in all the schools that was supposed to take a year took 7 weeks and saved significant costs.
  • Launch new efforts outside of the antiquated federal procurement system, which favors huge, multi-billion dollar, multi-year proprietary programs, to partner with the public on open-source “crowdsourcing” initiatives similar to ones that companies such as P & G use to get new products. The District of Columbia just did this with its “Apps for Democracy” contest, ending up with 47 valuable new computer applications for everything from tourism to public safety at a total cost of only $50,000! Other governmental entities worldwide are studying the contest as a model for similar innovation.

Government will accumulate data no matter what.

By simply fine-tuning data structure and sharing it automatically, the Obama Administration can sell its stimulus package, make government transparent, and make government work more efficiently.

That’s the opportunity hidden in the current crisis.

(Stephenson and Kundra are co-authoring "Democratizing Data," to be published by O'Reilly Media in July)