Obama Can Revolutionize Government Through Democratizing Data

From my vantage point in Boston, I prefer to look to an earlier period in Bay State politics, before Scott Brown's election, for a possible model to deal with the new realities the Obama Administration faces.

Back in the 1970s, two young state legislators who also went on to prominence in Washington, Barney Frank and Andrew Natsios, teamed on legislation to improve governmental efficiency. Frank wanted more government funding to get to those most in need. Natsios wanted to cut government spending. Today, ramping up the Obama Administration's "democratizing data" initiatives could both cut government spending and increase its effectiveness. It could be done through administrative reforms Obama could implement unilaterally rather than requiring legislation that might fail in today's bitter wrangling.

Democratizing data refers to a combination of policy and technology innovations that make government data available to those who need it, preferably on a real-time basis (i.e., data is released as soon as it is entered) plus tools that allow users to interpret and use that data. You need only think of how government real-time GPS data fostered an multi-billion dollar industry (location-based services) while improving the quality of our lives, to understand the potential benefits.

This data is "tagged," i.e. information that identifies the data and lets it be automatically used by both equipment and programs is permanently linked to the data as it is entered.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Taxonomy Project lets firms file a single tagged data file instead of having to fill out many forms for various agencies: the tags let data automatically flow into the forms. The average company now only has to report 8,000 data points instead of 200,000 when data had to be manually re-entered for each form. A company can save up to 25% on compliance costs, while the quality of regulation also improves because multiple agencies can simultaneously review a given company's filings instead of having to do it in isolation from each other.

The SEC now requires the nation's largest public companies to file their reports using the same tagged data system as the Dutch use (in several years all public companies must follow suit). There would be little incremental cost if the Administration followed the Dutch model and extended the single data filing option government-wide, while companies would benefit from the simplified filing system. Even better, those companies can use the exact same tagged data that is the basis for its reports on an internal basis every day, improving decision making and daily operations (Unfortunately, most companies now see the tagged-data requirement as a regulatory burden rather than an opportunity to improve their own operations.).

Tagged government data can serve many purposes at minimal cost since the information flows automatically. The Obama Administration launched Data.gov in May to release government data streams for public (including commercial) use. Starting with 47 feeds, within less than 2 months the number had increased to a staggering 100,000. These feeds not only make government transparent and accountable, but can be used by state and local governments, non-profits, and businesses to create new services.

That same data should also be made available internally in real-time to government employees. It would help them make better decisions by considering both historical trends and current conditions. Even better, Web 2.0 data visualization tools to interpreting data using striking graphic displays plus collaboration tools such as wikis could improve agency decision-making by encouraging collaborative analysis among many users.

When US CIO Vivek Kundra (who launched Data.gov and oversees the Administration's democratizing data initiatives) was D.C.'s CTO, he pioneered making real-time data (and tools to use it) available to the city's entire workforce. He considered every worker, not just elites, as a "knowledge worker." With ready access to real-time data, that could describe the federal workforce, improving operating efficiency and decision-making (not to mention employee satisfaction).

Tagged, real-time data may seem something only a statistician could love. In reality, the same data can be used simultaneously in so many ways by government, business and the public that President Obama could transform government in ways that would satisfy both the Barney Franks and the Andrew Natsioses. It could be done without legislation and save his presidency in the process.

W. David Stephenson is principal of Stephenson Strategies, Medfield, MA.
He is currently writing a book, "Democratizing data to transform government, business and daily life." Stephenson was a consultant to Kundra's transparency projects in D.C. Kundra was to co-author the book until he was appointed to his current job.