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Friday, January 16, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Have you ever wondered how much the U.S. government gave to, say, Boeing in federal contracts this year? What about Blackwater or GlaxoSmithKline? Now, thanks to a website called USAspending.gov, you can find out. Of course, federal data has always been out there – somewhere – but USAspending.gov allows anyone to gather this information with a few keystrokes in seconds. The site is not only revolutionary, it could provide a hint of the Obama Administration’s plans for government transparency. The site was, after all, created by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which Obama cosponsored, much to delight of the Sunlight Foundation’s Greg Elin. Greg, welcome to the show.

GREG ELIN: It’s a pleasure to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, Greg, it’s one thing to be technically in compliance with a statute that says you have to make public information publicly available and another thing to do so in a means that makes it easy for the individual citizen to get access to it. Is that, in fact, what makes USAspending.gov unique?

GREG ELIN: Precisely. Government must make transparency its responsibility. And in our world, when we say information is public, it means that the information has to be online. And presentation and the data matter as part of being online. Ten years ago if you were to publish information in PDF documents or Word documents or simply put it up on a webpage, that was really pretty far reaching. In 2009, in 2010, online means that you have access to the structured data as well. USAspending.gov is exceptional in that it is end-user searchable, so a human being can come use it, and it has an API so that another computer can come interact with that data.

BOB GARFIELD: I apologize to listeners if this gets a little technical, but this is a significant point. API documentation – why is that critical to this story?

GREG ELIN: Like most websites, USAspending.gov is powered by a database. So when you go to search for GlaxoSmithKline, you’re actually searching the database behind the scenes. USAspending.gov also includes an API, or an application programmer’s interface, which makes the data available to other people who want to create websites with the data. And we're seeing it where ordinary citizens and very smart people with Ph.D.s and coordinated non-profits can get in and analyze the data and mix it with data from other sources. It’s really wonderful to go to a website and search for an individual company or search for all the government contracts that are being spent in a particular Congressional district or state, but if you want to mix that data with census data or you want to mix that data with information that you get from the SEC or you want to mix it with campaign finance information, you have to have a way of getting that data out and remixing it with other data sources. And that’s what’s really exciting about APIs.

BOB GARFIELD: This particular website must thrill you, but it cannot be the culmination of all your hopes and dreams for government transparency. What’s on your wish list of the three things that you'd like to see Barack Obama do on day one or very soon thereafter?

GREG ELIN: I think the first one is an executive order stating that social media and technology of Web 2.0 should be used by all the agencies. I think that that’s absolutely the first one. We're certainly hopeful that he’s going to follow through on his promises to create an Ethics.gov site and to make the information of lobbying activity as searchable as the contracts are. I think the other thing is we'd like to see this information available in real time; rather than report it twice a year or quarterly or annually, that this information is available as it happens in real time.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more question. You are the chief evangelist for Sunlight Labs. You’re all about transparency. But I'm wondering if there is some logical extension of this process that actually frightens you and makes you get in touch with your inner Cheney. Can this go too far?

GREG ELIN: I don't think that we can go too far sharing information that is mandated to be publicly disclosed. If you’re talking about sharing information which has some secrecy value or raises privacy concerns, that’s another matter. But the information that’s in USAspending.gov is public information. We can go too far in sharing information poorly. We don't want to include Social Security numbers. That’s rather obvious. We don't want to share pictures of our children with personal information, even though it may be necessary to have some of that information on file somewhere. So I think that we have years to go, and there is so much information that we don't have available right now from government that we can go a long, long way before we run into any unintended consequences.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Greg, thank you so much.

GREG ELIN: Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Greg Elin is the chief evangelist for Sunlight Foundation. By the way, Boeing got 27,803,330,138 dollars of federal contracts last year.