Data to the People!

September 21, 2011
53 Views

Government debt and spending have recently sparked exceptionally intense and controversial debates in the US, the UK and the Eurozone. This is partly related to the massive stimulus programmes that have been set up in response to the credit crunch three years ago and, in turn, current efforts to curtail public budgets again.

Government debt and spending have recently sparked exceptionally intense and controversial debates in the US, the UK and the Eurozone. This is partly related to the massive stimulus programmes that have been set up in response to the credit crunch three years ago and, in turn, current efforts to curtail public budgets again. High levels of debt and taxation have stirred many people as much as cut backs on welfare or education have enraged many of their fellow citizens across Western democracies.

Now, whatever your take on this issue is, whether you are looking for a compromise, new ways to substantiate your argument or simply for the truth in a heated debate – you certainly have the right to have access to all the relevant facts and take your position on a well-informed basis. Arguably, the more controversial the issue is, the more facilitated this access should become. But is this really so?

In principle, budgets are being published in great detail, and not just on paper. Ambitious open government projects, especially in the US as well as in the UK, make vast amounts of data available online to the general public. This includes budgets from all levels of government, though not necessarily all of them. But once you start looking into these documents – for a patchwork of documents in all sorts of formats is what you’ll get – you realize that you are still a long way off from getting any comprehensive, comprehensible insight. You end up data-rich and information-poor.

Does this sound familiar to you? When enterprises started consolidating their data it was frequently after data analysts complained that they spent most of their time preparing their data and only a fraction on the actual analysis. Another reason was that distributed data sets limited the scope of analysis due to inconsistencies, incompatible definitions and lack of detail. It seems that governmental departments are still doing what units in large corporations used to do: produce their own data, hoard them, and tailor them for their own narrow needs only. Any interested citizen – analytical talent assumed – would have to spend ages to collect and integrate these data before he or she could query them. For query the data you must if you want to compare expenditures on road maintenance across the country, for example, or just last year’s figures with this year’s. Hardly does a single number ever tell a full story.

In short, there is no transparency without “queribility”. There will be no transparency without an integrated database that consolidates the complete expenditures from all levels and sectors of government. An easy-to-use, standardized front end would help, too. I realize that this would take a little effort. But frankly, isn’t it simply our right as citizens to check the public sector by the same means that a CFO uses to control a company? And in the end, wouldn’t this be money well spent? I think it would be a good idea to take the “democratization of data” to a whole new level. 

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