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Data.gov: Where's the Beef?

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By Gautham Nagesh November 16, 2009

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Considering the amount of resistance the White House has faced recently on everything from health care reform to the ballooning deficit, it would appear that President Obama's honeymoon is officially over. That means it may be time to start questioning how successful his administration has been in terms of delivering on promises to bring unprecedented transparency to the executive branch by publishing government data online.

Clay Johnson of the nonprofit Sunlight Labs is among those who are underwhelmed by the offerings on Data.gov:

It is now November 13, 2009. Right now the Raw Data Catalog in data.gov stands at an even 600 feeds. What's worse, the data is chunked up into small little bits, making 600 not a particularly exciting number. For instance, nearly half the datasets (293/600) in the raw data catalog are toxics release inventory datasets, broken up into individual states and outlying territories further broken up into individual years, from 2005 through 2008. This isn't living up to expectations, or even keeping in line with public statements. This needs to be fixed.

It's a fair point and one that's been discussed frequently around the Nextgov office as we struggle to create something meaningful from the plethora of new Web sites the Obama team has rolled out. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has been very aggressive about touting the administration's plans for publishing data online, but the results have not lived up to those promises.

This probably came as a disappointment to most, but I can't say I'm surprised. Starting with USASpending.gov, which Obama helped create when he was a senator, as well as the new IT Spending Dashboard, Obama has a history of advocating these types of projects as ideas but has demonstrably less success when it comes to delivering tangible results.

Last week Dave Powner of the Government Accountability Office acknowledged to me that the data on the IT Dashboard is not accurate, an opinion that many other people have expressed to me as well. Most of the critics assert that the data being submitted is itself flawed and not reflective of the state of IT investments in the federal government. That hasn't stopped the White House from promoting the dashboard or Kundra from touting the role it played in helping to make crucial spending decisions.

Of course, the problem is that only a small number of people actually will access the dashboard or Data.gov and test their functionality. Most of those people come from inside the Beltway and for one reason or another are unlikely to spend a lot of time or effort criticizing a government Web site. As far as the Obama administration is concerned, promoting the idea of transparency is just as good as actual transparency. Especially if it comes without those messy disclosures that often accompany substantive data releases.

The Obama team gets this. That's why they keep sending Kundra, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and other senior officials into the technology community to make speeches about how the Web sites are going to revolutionize government accountability. Technology people by nature want to believe that more technology is the solution. The idea of the government publishing XML feeds is exciting enough that they may not bother to see whether those feeds are providing any additional value.

The truth is there aren't that many people paying close attention to the Administration's transparency efforts. Luckily my colleague Aliya Sternstein is one of them. If you want the real scoop on transparency in the Obama White House, I highly suggest you follow her work.

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