We are witnessing a critical juncture in world history, and it’s not taking place in a dusty town square. Forget Libya, or Egypt, or any of the other dictatorships that are being expunged from reality like the cork on a foaming bottle of champagne. One of the most potentially transformative revolutionary acts is taking place in the United States Congress. It involves the end of open data portal Data.gov due to budgetary spending cuts.
On the surface, this may not seem like a major event, especially when compared with the blood and guts revolution transpiring around the globe. But Data.gov, which boasts an incredible ROI of $85 dollars for every $1 spent on its development and maintenance, is the beta version of a governmental system for a world that wants to solve its own problems instead of looking toward a dictatorial figure to do their thinking for them. It’s also one of the many programs that the U.S. government is considering shutting down in order to meet its budgetary goals.
The background politics behind the budgetary process go something like this: the Republicans and Democrats in the United States Congress need to cut back on government spending. Each party has a different notion of what can and should be cut from the federal budget. When it comes to technology, the Republicans want to grant $17 million for the ‘e-government fund’ as part of resolution H.R. 1363. This is a reduction of 50% of the Democratically approved budget from the 2010, but still better than the initial 2011 Republican proposal of $2 million dollars for the entire e-government fund.
However, the budget approval process continues to stagnate as both sides, instead of seeking common ground, attempt to find some political leverage over the other party. In the meantime, Data.gov is being shut down, along with a host of other projects including App development, that could ironically make the entire budgetary approval showdown unnecessary. Open data, if developed with significant intensity, could ultimately save enormous amounts of money on the entire legislative process by eliminating redundancy and overhead. The total amount of money needed to fund the open data project is a little less than what the government currently spends on a daily basis in its intervention in Libya. So why is the government being so petty?
Over the last twenty years, the United States has experienced an exceptionally partisan political climate. The two major parties have come to look at each other less as co-workers and more as rival warlords. Each party grabs as much as it can when it has a majority of power in the legislative houses, subsequently alienating the voters who belong to the other party. Each election is driven by emotional issues, not intellectual concerns. Both Republicans and Democrats have learned to stay away from talking about actual policy issues, instead focusing the brunt of their public political debate on those topics designed to evoke a personal response: gay marriage, abortion, etc. As a result, the vast majority of the public never hears about the actual work the government manages to do. Talk about open data in the United States, for example, and you will be met with blank looks.
The alienation between the two parties is so extreme that even the budget crisis itself is portrayed as a kind of a Sumo wrestling match between Rep. Boehner and President Obama, when it should be an honest discussion about what the country honestly needs to be a fully functioning, world-class democracy. In a way, the axing of Data.gov is symbolic of the government’s unwillingness to handle real information. The vast majority of politicians, it seems, have no time for actual ‘facts.’ They prefer power plays and ego-trips that continue to erode what was once (and many hope can still be) one of the most innovative nations on Earth.
Data.gov, like all open data sites, is the first step toward dragging our society out of the uninformed, partisan mess that has contributed to a sagging infrastructure and an ignorant populace. For years, if not decades, many people in the first world have chosen to believe that someone else will run their communities for them. As is being demonstrated in Egypt and elsewhere, the truth is that each person’s quality of life and relative freedom is directly attributable to them.
Open data enables ordinary citizens with no particular political inclinations to solve the problems of daily life. If a water main breaks, or a school is under-funded, or a town lacks enough recycling centers, ordinary citizens can look up information collected by the government and use it to start crafting their own solutions. This works on a federal level, too: citizens who live outside the narrow Beltway in Washington, D.C., wish to see their children educated and their environment protected. By having access to real information, citizens can begin to do the work that many of their elected representatives have been too distracted to accomplish. They can do this mainly by demanding accountability form specific agencies, such as the famously corrupt Mineral Management Service, which many believe bears significant blame for the 2010 BP oil spill. In an era of transparency, the MMS would have had a harder time ignoring environmental needs over corporate interests if all of its files and decision making processes were publicly perusable.
In this particular 2011 budget fight, the United States government has a choice. It can drop the political bs that has driven so many policy decisions over the last twenty years and focus on what’s actually good for the country, or, it can continue to devolve into partisan bickering that ultimately only lessens its overall power and global influence. Choosing to cut funding for a program that has displayed nothing but positive results in an incredibly short time frame is foolhardy.
It’s clear that in order to maintain a peaceful 21st century, individual municipalities and citizens must take back responsibility for our own lives. However, this transition of power doesn’t need to be incited by grenades: it can be as simple as governments offering up information to the people through public websites. Like Data.gov.