How well is data-driven democracy doing?
In the Washington Monthly, Charles Homans has an extensive investigation into the early efforts, both in Washington D.C. as a city, and on the government level after the high profile nomination (by Obama) of open government advocate Vivek Kundera.
Here are the conclusions only:
“Something unprecedented has happened in the past decade: greater computing power, better software tools, and the ever-extending reach of the Internet have all democratized the once-rarified field of data use. Making sense of huge piles of raw information used to require a degree in computer science, a university lab mainframe’s worth of circuits, and an awful lot of time. Now all it takes is an Internet connection and the ability to type in “Google.” Once-expensive tools are basically free, and often better than their pricey predecessors. It used to be that if you wanted financial intelligence, you had to pay for the services of a ratings agency like Moody’s, where analysts made sense of the data tapes gathered in person from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Now you can get a comparable analysis at Freerisk.org, a site launched by a pair of amateur programmers after last fall’s financial meltdown (which Moody’s failed to anticipate), where open-source software digests the same—now easily downloadable—SEC data.
Data enthusiasts like Cohen and Gundersen see in this changed information landscape the potential to do something big: leverage the interest of a newly enlightened public with ever-improving technological tools at its disposal to shine a giant spotlight on the inner workings of the government. Eventually we could see more clearly not just what the government is doing, but also how well what it’s doing is actually working—for instance, tracking education reforms through a matrix of crime and employment data to gauge the rippling effects of policy decisions in something like real time, and adjusting them accordingly. In April, Kundra explained the concept in a Senate subcommittee hearing, comparing the government to a precision-guided missile: “One of the reasons those missiles actually hit their targets is because you get a constant feedback, a loop-back mechanism that lets you know how you are performing in relation to where you are,” he told the panel.
Kundra’s efforts to put these ambitions into practice, however, have thus far mostly thrown into sharp relief just how far the federal government has to go to meet them. Recovery.gov, the stimulus-money-tracking Web site that Kundra helped conceive as a member of Obama’s transition team, was supposed to herald a new era in accountability. Instead, its attempts to track the biggest burst of government spending in history have been slow moving and incomplete, and hamstrung by classic Government 1.0 problems. Some agencies have been reluctant to cooperate, and the fact that the federal government doesn’t keep tabs on states’ spending on things like education and highway improvements means that it simply doesn’t have much of the information it needs to make the site useful. “You end up with an almost intractable problem once those dollars leave the Beltway,” says Eric Gillespie, senior vice president of the Seattle-based data research firm Onvia, which employs a staff of hundreds to pore over local government records and newspaper notices for that kind of information. “If you’re counting on some sort of persistent or permanent source of data, it just doesn’t exist.” (To prove this point, Onvia has launched a site called Recovery.org, which uses its own store of hard-won data to provide a lot of the information Recovery.gov has promised but failed to deliver.)
The initial launch of Data.gov, Kundra’s bigger bid for bureaucratic transformation, in May was similarly underwhelming. When the site debuted, it featured forty-seven data feeds. But they included very little of the data that anyone interested in transparency would really want—half of the feeds were from the U.S. Geological Survey. “The top data source is on the world’s copper smelters,” says the Sunlight Foundation’s Johnson, “which isn’t going to tell us very much about what’s going on inside of our government.” Once again, as if to prove Kundra’s point that citizens are often more inventive with data than governments, when the official site debuted it fell short of a similar amateur site, USAGovXML.com, a government data catalog that a programmer in New Jersey named Robert Loftin built in his spare time by e-mailing and calling government agencies one by one and asking for data feeds. (Data.gov has since expanded its offerings modestly, and when this issue went to press Kundra’s office was expecting to add significantly more resources to the site in coming weeks.)
While open government advocates and data geeks are critical of the performance of these projects so far, they give Kundra’s goals almost universally high marks. “I think what they’re trying to do is quite admirable,” Loftin says. “Unless you’re a fan of waste, fraud, and abuse, it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Gillespie says. And these efforts tend to have rocky rollouts, for the simple reason that you often don’t realize what information you’re missing until you start asking for it. In 1986, after a pair of high-profile fatal chemical plant mishaps in India and the United States, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to create a database that kept track of toxic chemicals emitted by heavy industrial operations in the U.S. Chemical companies predictably balked, and at first the data were shoddy and full of holes. But as the system expanded over time, so did the quality of the companies’ monitoring. In the end, the database became valuable to industry itself—companies could see how they stacked up against their competitors, and promote their efficiency—and spawned innovations in pollution control. “It was a mobilization by the public that led to better data,” Mechling says. “A little bit of data leads to better data, and then you’re onto a positive spiral.”
In other words, the government and its citizens have to learn—as the Obama campaign did—to see information technology less as a service to be provided, someone who fixes BlackBerries and fine-tunes spam filters, and more as a process, a sort of techno-civic game of Marco Polo. “Look at the Gallup polls—the number of people who believe the government is doing the right thing most of the time has historically fallen from about 70 percent to about 15 percent,” Mechling says. “There has been a huge erosion of trust. The idea that says, ‘Government has all this data, let’s just make that available, and show them we have nothing to hide,’ that’s the big thing. [It] is potentially a game changer. The game has yet to be played.”