Open Government Information Awareness

A new project, Open Government Information Awareness (alternative link), promises to make available ” a single, comprehensive, easy-to-use repository of information on individuals, organizations, and corporations related to the government of the United States of America.” At the moment,there’s not much there, but they seem to be actively soliciting input from government employees (including elected officials) as well as political activists and others. The data is available at the website, and also as downloadable XML and CSV files that can be imported into a wide variety of software (databases and spreadsheets, for instance) for private analysis, comparison, or just reference, which I like a lot. The only criticism I have (and it’s a light one, at that) is that there is not enough information about how data will be solicited, evaluated, and verified. Will they be using paid researchers? Freelance writers? Volunteers? Are entries reviewed for legal implications (e.g. libel and/or slander)? Since misinformation is such a powerful political tool, I would hope to see some serious accountability measures.

On the other hand, I can also see this project (or a related project) unfolding as a “Wiki-esque” open submission system. Remarkably, the Wiki projects I’ve seen (e.g. WikiPedia) manage to provide valid and accurate information, despite their openness. Whether through the action of devoted experts who clean up after less scrupulous contributors or simply the social pressure that comes with being “on your honor”, Wikis seem to, more often than not, “just work”. (Maybe for the people running them, Wikis are a constant source of head-splitting tension and chaos, but if they are, their maintainers do an incredible job of shielding us users from the behind-the-scenes mishegoss.)

So long as it manages to stay trustworthy, though, GIA will be a good thing. During his 2000 campaign, Nader made a point that while the Internet would seem to allow Congresspeople and other elected officials to easily make their voting records and other data available to their constituencies, very few politicians actually do this, preferring to keep their (potentially embarassing) records as obscure as possible. A few organizations compile voting records on their particular issues (such as the Sierra Club‘s environmental “report cards”), but if you want a comprehensive list of a particular politician’s voting record across all issues, you have to either buy it from an organization like CRC or put it together yourself from the Congressional Record. GIA–like the Total “Terrorist” Information Awareness office it claims its inspiration from–promises to provide the means for us citizens to keep an all-seeing eye on the activities of our representatives, including those at state and municipal levels (useful on the national level too, when you want to find out how today’s Congressional candidate behaved when s/he was a school superintendant way back when). It is only unfortunate that our own government coundn’t find it in their hearts to do the right thing themselves.

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