This Week in Transparency – July 17, 2009

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Here are a few of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies from the week:

Jeff Jacoby, columnist for The Boston Globe, mentioned ReadTheBill.org in a piece he wrote calling on congressional lawmakers read legislation before they vote on it. Glenn Reynolds, at his Instapundit blog, linked to Jacoby’s column. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, followed by linking to Reynolds.

In Washington Monthly‘s July/August edition, Charles Homans wrote about the Obama administration’s “experiments with data-driven democracy.” The article centers on the work of Vivek Kundra, the White House’s chief information officer, and mentions both the District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy contest and Sunlight’s Apps for America contest. Homans quotes Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs’ director, saying Kundra has his work cut out for him. “I have nothing but respect for what he’s trying to do. But it’s a hard job, and it’s going to take some time for this to actually happen right. I mean years.” While discussing Kundra’s launch of Data.gov, Homans again quotes Clay, “The top data source is on the world’s copper smelters, which isn’t going to tell us very much about what’s going on inside of our government.”

As Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s director, wrote earlier this week, “When it comes to following the money that’s flowing to power on Capitol Hill, no one does it better than the Center for Responsive Politics.” For instance, MAPLight.org used CRP data to show how money watered down the energy bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (HR 2454). With Congress debating health care reform, Forbes used CRP data to show how America’s Health Insurance Plans, the political advocacy and trade group for the health insurance industry, has spent nearly $10 million on lobbying Congress in the past two years. Robert J. S. Ross, writing at The Huffington Post, quotes CRP about how the insurance industry has contributed $568 million to political campaigns since 1998. CNN‘s Jonathan Mann used CRP data in noting how doctors have spent roughly two-thirds of a billion dollars lobbying lawmakers in the last 10 years.

Sunlight’s launch of the National Data Catalog generated a number of good media mentions. Federal News Radio‘s Dorothy Ramienski interviewed Clay about the launch, who said the impetus for the new site is that Data.gov can’t go as far as some would like because of laws that are already in place, such as the Paperwork Reduction Act. “For instance, right now Data.gov only has information around the executive branch of government. It doesn’t have any information around the judicial or the legislative branch of government and we don’t have any indication as to whether or not it can.” Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb asked, “Can Sunlight build a one-stop-shopping destination for public data, and will people make use of that? Time will tell, but it sounds like a very important project.” And Next.gov‘s Aliya Sternstein referred to the catalog as “a public-service Web site that pulls and repackages federal data – fulfilling the aim of the White House’s ‘democratizing data’ campaign.”

National Public Radio‘s Dina Temple-Raston, in a piece that aired on the network’s “Morning Edition,” reported how analysts at the FBI and CIA are turning to software to help find patterns among terrorists — hoping to spot clues in everything from phone calls to credit card and ATM usage. She interviewed Jim Dempsey, the director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, “There had been, over the past seven years, this sense that if you collect more and more data and put it into a powerful enough computer, shake it and bake it the right way you’ll come up with the unknowns” — terrorists who aren’t yet on law enforcement’s radar screens, Jim said. “I think, and other people who are more technically adept than I think, that’s really a fool’s errand.”

John Moore at Federal Computer Week wrote how Web 3.0 could help make President Obama’s dream of government transparency a reality, but he’ll need a second term to see it happen. “The Web’s traditional function is to simply present content, such as a government report posted online. The Semantic Web goes a step further by seeking to illuminate the content’s meaning,” Moore wrote. While discussing the challenges, Moore lists the time and effort required to tag and describe the government’s vast data holdings. He quotes Clay expressing concern that the government might become preoccupied with formatting data rather than releasing it. “I would hate to see them get bogged down in trying to make their data Semantic Web compatible before it even sees the light of day,” Clay said. Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, said his group would like to look at government contractors to see if they comply with Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agency directives. But the group would need to know that a company listed in one database is the same entity listed in others. “Semantic technology, if done properly, should be able to tell us that,” Gary said.

Veteran reporter J. Scott Orr, writing at Parade magazine, reports on how federal contracts often waste taxpayer money for lack of proper oversight. He cites an investigation (PDF) by the Government Accountability Office that found required performance assessments were conducted for less than one-third of the 23,000 contracts it surveyed. Orr quotes Scott Amey, general counsel to the Project on Government Oversight, saying the feds would save billions of dollars if they would more efficiently collect and share performance data. “Considering Uncle Sam spent over $530 billion last year,” Amey says, “a higher priority must be placed on choosing contractors that are a wise investment.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.) wrote a column in The Huffington Post calling for more earmark disclosure in Congress. He wrote how he and Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) worked with Taxpayers for Common Sense and Sunlight to introduce House Resolution 440, which would strengthen transparency and accountability in the earmarking process.

Think Progress‘ Matt Corley wrote about a memo GOP message guru Frank Luntz wrote defining the Republican rhetoric on health care reform. Corley quotes from and links to Sunlight senior writer Paul Blumenthal‘s blog post where he used Capitol Words to show how congressional Republicans are following Luntz’s advice. At his Liberaland blog, Alan Colmes, the liberal commentator, syndicated radio talk show host and Fox News Channel political contributor, also linked to Paul’s post and republished the infographic that used Capitol Words data to show the impact of the memo.

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  • I think what maplight is doing is outstanding. I wish there was a way to spread this idea out to the voters and let them know really what is going on in our government. Social media, online blogging, and others of the sort have been under attack by the media for quite some time, but i think by having a transparent government source like this is one of the better ways we have used online technology to better our society and communication.