Don't Hide, Just Kill Transparency Funding

Modest attempts (by IT standards) to create more U.S. federal government transparency tend to cite several  related projects: the IT Dashboardusaspending.gov and data.gov. Current budget wrangling targets all of these initiatives for cuts. InfoWorld's Eric Knorr added his voice to a growing list of concerned experts in the IT community. And who wants to do the cutting and hiding? According to some, "the provision to cut these programs started among House Republicans and was re-introduced by Senate Democrats."

Save the Data!, a call to action by transparency advocate Sunlight Foundation recommends that citizens work to get the word out. That means signing Sunlight's letter to Congress, crafting a letter to the editor of the local paper, or producing a blog post.

In keeping with principles espoused elsewhere, seven reasons to not only preserve but to expand these programs can be given:
  1. "iFedApps" Provide a sort of FedApps store in which citizen-developed apps can be vetted and hosted. These can include specialized local applications that would not otherwise see the light of day. It's not just about the apps. There is value in promoting citizen responsibility for monitoring and interpreting the actions of government. With most citizens disengaged except once every four years, or perhaps events related to personal hot-button issues (abortion, gay marriage, antiwar sentiment), fostering a habit of sober analysis across a wide range of policy issues can't hurt.
  2. Compensatory Transparency With much of lawmaking happening behind closed doors or with secret holds, sometimes the only way to learn about laws is to study their effects -- especially through funding effects, but also through crowdsourcing and simple information sharing. These latter opportunities are not directly supported by data, but by informed discourse that is stimulated by the availability of data.
  3. Data Quality Must Evolve Data is not knowledge. Initial attempts to release useful, complete and standardized data for use by a broad audience -- whether by the government or others -- needs to evolve over time. Programs such as these need time to get it right. Analysis of one dataset will leads to calls for others that were not originally anticipated. Experts in diverse fields may need to weigh in. Effective visualization tools may not be immediately available.
  4. Support Critical Decision-making Some data that can only provided from federal datasets can guide decision-making that can affect the economic viability of individual businesses and the soundness of policies. In the absence of data, policymakers are free to make claims that appeal to constituents but cannot be confirmed or denied by looking at the evidence. Some datasets may lead directly to business opportunities, as argued by Clive Thompson.
  5. Incentivize Cost-Saving It may be human nature to be more interested in new ideas, new technologies and new gadgets rather than cost avoidance. Certainly this has been argued in the energy sphere (Montana's Governor Schweitzer notes, "energy efficiency provides the best homegrown defense against high-energy prices and it produces the quickest results"). It may be true in many  spheres of government, especially as ways to reduce health care costs and defense spending become more urgent in light of federal debt obligations. Ingenious ways to save must start with a good understanding of where spending occurs and what factors drive it. As today's businesses understand, a healthy IT infrastructure is a necessary, if not sufficient, component in identifying or executing cost saving ideas.
  6. Kick "Informed Citizenry" Up a Notch  Taken as a suite -- the datasets, tools and support staff -- the e-government transparency initiatives should (despite their limitations) provide a rich resource for teachers and learners. Make the idea of "an informed citizenry" concrete. Being informed takes more than reading front page news stories or press releases. The confluence of mathematics, public policy, government, environment -- and more -- provides deep, practical introductions for students that are far richer than the artificial "word problems" posed in many textbooks. Worse, the latter examples tend to be mono-disciplinary, which is to say, unrealistically narrow in focus. Paraphrasing Don Rothman, the National Writing Project says "students must grapple with complexity in order to learn."
  7. Urge Politicians Toward Digital Literacy Budget cuts may reduce digital literacy among students, but it's too late for many politicians. Widespread use of open datasets could demand that politicians who lack this expertise must seek out subordinates with expertise in the tools, data and metadata, and  social ecosystem supporting public information portals. Indirectly, this could lead to other benefits, such as:
    1.  healthier and judicious use of FOIA requests; 
    2. better management of federal programs so that datasets can be created efficiently and distributed in more timely fashion; 
    3. increased adoption of digital metrics to assess the results and value of federal programs. 
This latter result, improved measurement, even if achieved in subtle ways, is nothing short of subversive.

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