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Technology could make government more open

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POSTED: June 8, 2009 9:33 a.m.
Technology pundits may be debating whether we are in Web 2.0 or 3.0, but all too often, government is stuck in Web 1.0. Many governments are starting to pay lip service to “transparency” and some are reluctantly publicizing spending information on searchable government Web sites.  Frequently, however, the data are more than 6 months to a year old, not interactive and difficult to analyze.
As this extended campaign season heats up, candidates and elected officials must be urged to “set our data free.” The Internet has changed dramatically in just the last few years. In addition to allowing anyone to cheaply publish information that is instantly available to the world through a Web site, the Internet has become wonderfully interactive. This began with discussions on blogs, collaborative efforts like Wikipedia and photo and video-sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube. RSS feeds and other innovations have allowed information to come to users, skirting the need to go find it.
One good example of how this new technology impacts lives is transportation. In nearly every major city, speed monitors and traffic cameras track traffic conditions on major interstates, roads and intersections. Governments make this information available on their Web sites — such as Georgia-Navigator.com — and through live data feeds available in an easily shared format. Individuals can pull up Google Maps on a smart phone, check traffic and make plans to avoid bottlenecks. Even better, the latest cutting-edge GPS devices can connect to the Internet and access the information to steer you around traffic jams without the driver having to look up anything.
Georgia recently joined Florida in making health care data more interactive. Just this week, www.georgiahealthinfo.gov unveiled a new feature that allows users to search on a specific drug and compare prices to find the best price among pharmacies in the vicinity. (In an unscientific analysis, we found typical savings of 25 percent, which could save hundreds of dollars annually.) In addition to pharmaceuticals, the site claims that “in the search for outpatient procedures, people can plug in their address and the procedure, and the site will list area clinics and hospitals as well as their prices for the services.”
The possibilities are endless. Why are real estate agents the only ones who can figure out school attendance zones? Detailed maps of political districts could be linked to voting locations, elected officials, campaign contributions and voting records. The locations of after-hours health clinics could be mapped in order to help avoid overcrowding hospital emergency rooms. Broadband Internet access maps could be linked to providers, bandwidth and prices. Tax rates, school test scores, restaurant inspection scores and air and water quality data could also be mapped.
Government transparency means much more than just dumping files on a Web site for users to muddle through. True transparency carries with it an expectation of timely, easily shared data that citizens, nonprofits and businesses can tap to create rich, interactive applications. The data should be able to be downloaded, mapped, graphed, sorted, tagged and searched. In the long run, a better informed public will lead to more substantive political campaigns, better policy and increased philanthropy and volunteerism. It’s easier and more affordable than ever so there is no reason not to make it happen.

McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.
 

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