Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

OK, so this is cool...

The Obama administration has set up a website,, where you can find information on the economic stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). The website is fairly basic (but still interesting) at the moment, having only gone live this morning, but in the weeks to come it will expand so we can track where our tax dollars are going. For now, you can read the full bill, see a few summary statistics, and see the timeline of when the additional information should become available. promises to give us detailed information on where exactly the money is going, down to the Congressional district, and also to whom the money is going, down to the individual federal contractor. Given that this is perhaps the largest appropriations bill in history, and that much of the money will be spent at the state and local level, gathering this information together is no mean feat.

Some may consider this a gimmick, but I don't think so. Indeed, they promise to make the data available in XML format to allow web developers to make their own "mashups and gadgets" to analyze and display the information. I think this really raises the bar for transparency in government--I am going to want to start seeing this for State budgets and for all future spending bills. This website promises to give non-politicians a real window on the way government functions. I hope they Obama administration will deliver!


The Law Talking Guy said...

I am not so sure this is terrific, Dr.S. While a handful of citizens like you may be able to process the data, most can't. Most of this processing has long been done by think tanks with access to the data anyway. It may be gratifying to get direct access to the data in electronic formats, but I don't think the actual level of transparency will increase. I don't think anything new is going on the web that Brookings doesn't have access to now. Just wondering about all this.

Still, I like the Protestant idea that each taxpayer has a right to read the budget materials for himself or herself.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"While a handful of citizens like you may be able to process the data..."

I appreciate the vote of confidence :-) Actually, though, I thought most of the interest would be not on the numbers side but the verbiage side: so citizens like you who can peruse the contracts and the like. I should also add that, in my experience with the Pentagon--which is suspect is reflective of the bureaucracy in general--data can be surprisingly difficult to come by, so I am not at all sure the Brookings institution or anyone else would have the data.

This may not increase transparency per se, but it will increase the scrutiny. What this site does is to open up the books to the blogosphere. A million eyes will soon be able to scan the particular pieces they are familiar with for oddities, omissions, and discrepancies. There are many experts out there.

Pombat said...

I'm with you Dr.S - this is great! Ok, so maybe the percentage of the (US, i.e. directly affected) population that can analyse it is small, but the mere fact that they are publishing it at all, and so openly, means that it's not hidden/inaccessible for whatever reason. And even if only, say, 1% of the US population can analyse it, and only half of those do (and no-one in the rest of the world bats an eye), and only half of *those* choose to publish their thoughts online, that's still 0.25% of the US population, or roughly 750,000 people publishing, which is a lot of thoughts.

When it comes down to it though, the numbers won't be that limited - there'll be nerds and geeks everywhere having a good crack at it all :-)

I would love to see that kind of transparency in governmental budgetting here...

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think most of this was always published, just not on the web. Ever filed a FOIA request? I've done it with the CA state equivalent, and it was my new favorite toy for a while. So long as the info isn't about military or personnel, it gets coughed up.

That's my thought. I doubt that the Obama administration will make public information previously not available through FOIA.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You are right, of course, that the Obama admininstration will almost certainly not release any data on that would be too sensitive for release via FOIA. (To release such data might even be illegal.)

Nevertheless, this website is still a big deal for several reasons. First, gathering the data is no small potatoes. I have not filed FOIA requests, so I may be wrong in this, but I suspect that knowing what exactly to ask for is half of the battle. This website promises to facilitate that greatly. Second, by sorting, tagging, and compiling (at least on a preliminary level) this data, it becomes easier to digest and analyze in all sorts of clever ways. Third, by making the data available all together on the open web, it makes the data far more accessible.

Dealing with these sorts of accessibility issues is the number one bugbear I have to deal with--getting data from the gatekeepers is like pulling teeth. And it's not just me or my company--the government ties itself in knots over this. One of the projects I am working on for the Air Force intelligence wing, something they are really keen to get their hands on, is a comprehensive matrix of all of their surveillance capabilities, sorted and compiled in the same format for easy comparison and analysis. Can you believe they don't have that?! No one has it. Not only is there no common formatting (don't get me started on unit systems--why some folk insist on using nautical miles is beyond me) there isn't even a central repository. Technically available is not practically accessible. And information is not knowledge. (And platitudes are not helpful, I know...)

I can't wait to see the blogosphere descend on once they get going. Maybe LTG is right and this will fizzle--maybe the Obama administration will not do the job of gathering, sorting, and publishing they have promised--but I suspect the wonks in his administration are just as eager to see that data as the rest of us!