The Hazards of Open Data Exceptionalism

Frustrated USAspending.gov users, courtesy naersjoen. Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

The prospect of funding cuts for e-Gov initiatives like data.gov, USAspending.gov and friends is worrying. Everyone should join the Sunlight Foundation’s effort to Save the Data. At the same time, this is a good opportunity for reflection.

There’s no doubt that the proliferation of Open Government websites has been a great first step for transparency and accountability. Despite the flaws, most of us see the promise of something very powerful in these projects.

I can feel strongly about the value of these programs and still be mystified at the $18M cost of recovery.gov when RATB has surely already built their own internal system to do basically the same thing. This has me thinking.

Why create one set of tools for citizens, and another for internal use? It seems that services like USAspending.gov should be part of the usual operation of OMB, rather than some special e-Gov project that’s vulnerable to budget cuts. Why a distinct and conspicuous line item for USAspending.gov, when it’s a citizen-friendly face on the $24M Federal Procurement Data System? Why not spend that money instead on improving FPDS, and making it more usable for both the public and the government?