Let's turn the federal government over to bloggers

You may be wondering what Barack Obama meant at Friday night's presidential debate when he said he wants a "Google for government."

In 2006, Obama joined with a number of U.S. senators -- including John McCain -- to pass S. 2590, the "Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act," a bill creating "a Google-like search engine and database to track approximately $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans."

Last November, Obama visited Google to explain his vision of a Google-enabled government. He told its t-shirt wearing employees that he wants to put "government data online in universally accessible formats." This is the most important thing that Obama has said about this issue.

Many federal agencies have put data online but use different formats and complicated search methodologies that often produce frustratingly poor results. It’s nearly impossible to easily cross reference data between agencies.

The fix, according to a paper "Government Data and the Invisible Hand," by a group of Princeton University researchers that is due to be published in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology, is to standardize the underlying data formats across the federal government. In their paper, David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller and Edward Felten (Felten's blog is Freedom to Tinker), wrote:

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that "exposes" the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

These authors believe the best way to enable federal data accessibility is "to rely on private parties with its vibrant marketplace of engineering ideas to discover what works." 

One example of the government's online problem is Regulations.gov. It's a good effort but it's more lobbyist than citizen-friendly. The feds should hire the folks at Digg or Slashdot to reoganize it.

And RSS feeds? Forget about it. Much of what the federal government produces isn't RSS enabled. But there’s hope.

The District of Columbia is far ahead of its federal government overlord in bringing data to standard XML formats and RSS-enabling it. DC's government has what it calls a "data catalog" offering live data feeds of crime reports, construction reports, building permits and many other types of information.

One local Washington DC blogger, Jacqueline Dupree of JDLand, who writes about issues in Southeast DC, offers a stunningly good example of how to transform raw data formats into useful information. [Scroll down through her blog.] JDLand this month won a Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism.

If the federal government standardizes data formats it will allow Google and other third parties to provide very useful aggregations. But, most importantly, it is the bloggers who will give this data wings. Bloggers, like JDLand, can customize and refine this government data for their audiences. That is open government in action.

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