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Transparency Roundup

New Media in the Virginia Governor’s Race
Nancy Scola of Tech President takes a look at the role of new media in Bob McDonnell’s victory. Long story short,

There are those close to the ’09 Virginia governor’s race who will tell you that Deeds was simply outmatched online by McDonnell and the web of consultants he reached out to — and funded — throughout the course of the campaign. It’s a disparity that grew worse as the Deeds campaign struggled to the finish line, and advisors with the Democratic campaign poured more money into the more traditional mediums of television and radio. In the first three weeks of October, for example, Deeds poured more than $3 million into television and radio ads. According to Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) filings, Deeds dedicated just over $117,000 or so to online politicking through late October.

In contrast the McDonnell campaign spent more than $600,000 on new media in the same time period. There is a lot more interesting stuff in the article, but the basic point is that McDonnell absolutely outclassed Deeds in terms of new media.
Adobe and Open Government
Adobe is heavily pushing its own software, particularly their Flash and PDF standards, to make government more open and transparent. But does using Adobe make sense for anyone but Adobe? Sunlight Labs says no.

Here at the Sunlight Foundation, we spend a lot of time with Adobe’s products– mainly trying to reverse the damage that these technologies create when government discloses information. The PDF file format, for instance, isn’t particularly easily parsed. As ubiquitous as a PDF file is, often times they’re non-parsable by software, unfindable by search engines, and unreliable if text is extracted.

While the Sunlight Foundation acknowledges that any time the government releases data in any format it is generally better than the status quo, closed standards like PDF and Flash are much less useful to citizens and developers than open standards like HTML or XML.
Problems with Recovery.gov
The Sunlight Foundation also takes  a look at some major failures with the site set up to track stimulus spending.

In short what’s happened is that the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board has launched a website, asked citizens to report waste fraud and abuse on that website, and filled it full of data that they knew was either questionable or blatantly inaccurate. This doesn’t sound productive for either the recipients of the funds, the government or the citizens seeking to monitor this spending. What’s the point of reporting waste, fraud or abuse if none of the data is correct?

While Recovery.gov has generally been a major step forward on government transparency, there are clearly problems. Hopefully the administration will take articles like this from watchdog groups seriously and continue to work to improve recovery.gov.
Data Catalogs Gain Ground
Two major developments on the push for putting more government data online, which we’ve covered here before.  In the first instance the Federal Election Commission has launched a data catalog to give online developers better access to campaign finance data. Even more exciting, the FEC action was based in part on the testimony of citizens who, organized by the Sunlight Foundation, petitioned the FEC to launch a data catalog.
The other major data development is that the British Government is launching its own data catalog, initially modeled on the US system, but with the potential to grow into something much greater.

In seriousness, the involvement of Berners-Lee raises the possibility that the British data site might be a step beyond its U.S. inspiration, lending itself more readily to use by normal citizens than its American counterpart has thus far proven itself to be.

That’s because Berners-Lee has, for many years now, been trying to sell the world on the idea of a web were linkages are based on human language, rather than hard-coded hyperlinks. His vision is of a web that understands the connections between disparate bits of information in a way similar to how the human mind might effortlessly connect an address on London’s Whitehall with the events of World War II that Winston Churchill directed from an underground bunker there. Data woven through with more human ways of interpretation might, just might, make the gap between making government information public and making it useful a little smaller.

How Transparency Can Improve Government Performance

The Commonwealth Institute (of Pennsylvania), brings our attention to a study by the Mercatus Center that looks at the benefits of government transparency.

First, transparency naturally deters corruption by addressing the principal-agent problem. In other words, as investors are required to be informed about the true state of a venture in which they invest, taxpayers are entitled to be informed about the true state of the government they fund. You can’t keep government accountable if you don’t know what it’s up to.

Secondly, governments can use transparency to improve efficiency, like for-profit business, by placing pressure on employees to exert themselves. But transparency isn’t a panacea – competition is by far the most powerful solution.

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