Don't let Congress kill digital transparency

The draft federal budget proposes to deep-six USAspending.gov and Data.gov, dealing a devastating blow to transparency and innovative new services

No big corporation would dream of flying blind without some kind of business intelligence system. But until a few years ago, that's what the U.S. government did -- key performance indicators and other vital data were so buried and spread across so many sources, neither the public nor most elected officials could hope to assemble them into a coherent picture of how the government was perfoming.

Beginning in 2006 with USAspending.gov, a cluster of sites emerged to show where your tax dollars are going and how effective they've been -- and to aggregate hundreds of thousands of datasets collected by the federal government to be freely consumed by business and public interest groups. But now that times are tough, just when these sites are needed most, Congress wants to pull the plug on them and go back to flying blind.

[ Time is running out! To help rescue these transparency initiatives, go to the Sunlight Foundation's Save the Data page. | Read a profile of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra by InfoWorld's Galen Gruman. ]

The IT Dashboard section of USAspending.gov -- dubbed an exercise in "radical transparency" by Tim O'Reilly -- has already saved $3 billion in unnecessary spending according to Federal CIO Vivek Kundra. Sister site Data.gov, which is also on the brink of extinction, was launched by Kundra two years ago to improve public access to high-value, machine-readable data sets generated by the government. It now hosts 379,939 of them.

In an open letter to Congress last week, the Sunlight Foundation offered this plea: "An open and accountable government is a prerequisite for democracy. Keeping these programs alive would cost a mere pittance when compared to the value of bringing the federal government into the sunlight ... please sustain funding for these vital transparency programs."

I couldn't agree more. How much money are we talking about? The budget for these and several related projects (including PaymentAccuracy.gov, Apps.gov, and more) would be cut from $34 million to $2 million.

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, takes credit for reading the fine print in the proposed budget and uncovering the effort to defund these e-government initiatives. He describes them collectively as a "startup" where the federal government can develop innovative ways to both modernize its IT operations and deliver vital information to the public. Last week he told me: "If you take away this tiny investment fund -- I mean we're talking $34 million in a couple-trillion-dollar budget -- where is this innovation going to come from elsewhere? And the answer is it's not."

As with your typical first-rev business intelligence initiative, the accuracy of the data presented by USAspending.gov has been far from perfect. In fact, the Sunlight Foundation has been a vocal critic. But as Schuman says, "Not having it would be worse. We want them to get better, not go away."

As for Data.gov, the rational aggregation of government-generated data has potential value beyond accountability. As a Harvard Business School article noted, "Data.gov opens the door for the private sector to add value to government data. In particular, it may prove a boon to small businesses, which can devise creative applications." On the Data.gov site, you can find more than 200 "citizen-developed" apps, including ones related to employment markets, clean air status, community health, and more.

We live in a world where data grows exponentially, but meaningful data sets remain alarmingly scarce. If the lights go out on Data.gov and USAspending.gov, we'll lose an important source of meaningful data and take two steps back on government accountability and efficiency. Please visit the Sunlight Foundation's Save the Data page and join me in asking Congress to continue funding.

This article, "Don't let Congress kill digital transparency," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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