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Panel says tech companies might not see immediate profit from stimulus

Tech vendors may not profit immediately from selling new technologies that improve government's transparency and accountability because of the free services available now, said a bipartisan panel of social media advocates on Tuesday.

"It's a little too soon to spec out the standards" for software that can analyze government data to ensure stimulus and other federal money is spent wisely, said Andrew Plemmons Pratt, managing editor of ScienceProgress.org, an online magazine published by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

"First, you maybe have to have some demonstration projects" which eventually "leads to some policy outcome" that would provide contractors with IT requirements, he added.

But right now users can track some federal spending without spending a dime because many organizations and individuals are providing free information by aggregating data from commercial and government Web sites.

Pratt and Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow who specializes in government transparency at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, said StimulusWatch.com is an example of an inexpensive Web site that harnesses government data similar to details the administration has said it will supply online eventually. The two men spoke at an event hosted by the Association for Competitive Technology, an industry group that promotes the interests of entrepreneurial tech companies.

For instance, unions may want to create a digital map based on data from Recovery.gov, the government's one-stop shop for stimulus spending information, that measures the number of stimulus jobs created against the unemployment rate in each state, Brito told reporters after the event.

These inexpensive Web sites, which essentially add relevant public and commercial information to free government data, require more brainpower than bandwidth.

"You have these situations where the government is getting ripped off for the [software] that is provided to them," Pratt said in an interview after the event.

Less-costly "open source has some legal complications" for agency requirements, such as liability limits and endorsements, "but now there is policy" to overcome some of those barriers, he added. Open source refers to computer programs that are freely available for the public, including government agencies, to modify and improve upon for their own purposes, such as tracking financial bailout spending.

In March the administration signed an agreement to help increase citizen participation in government with several new media providers, including photo-sharing site Flickr, to develop terms of service that meet agency legal requirements.

The "primary obstacle to doing all this is organizational," not technological, Pratt said.

Brito is developing a site, OpenRegs.com, that taps into data underpinning the Government Printing Office's publication of federal rules, the Federal Register, to create a more user-friendly display.

OpenRegs segments the regulations into categories, such as draft rules whose comment periods are closing soon, and allows users to subscribe to alerts from specific agencies. The government's site for publicizing the rulemaking process, Regulations.gov, essentially only provides a laundry list of the items in the Federal Register without making them more understandable to the public, he said.

"Transparency is a means to an end. It's not an end itself. That end is accountability," Brito added.

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