Friday, February 05, 2010

From Raw Data To Raw Deal

If You Can't Bathe The Public In Sunshine, Rain Down The Data On Transparancy's Parade

What was that song from the musical, Chicago? Razzle Dazzle 'Em?

Yeah. That's it. When you can't sell it straight out, give them the old song-and-dance. Or, in the case of government, create a website -- in the name of public access and government accountability -- with all the raw data one could possibly consume, if not find impossible to digest.

The feds, in the interest of more open government, have attempted to do just that, unveiling, encouraging John Q. Public to "discover, participate, and engage."

Well, discover, we did. What we found were more databases than Limbaugh has Oxycontin pills. One more incomprehensible than the next -- or was it than the one before? Hard to tell.

Data on housing. Data on transportation and highway safety. Data on the environment. Data on data, no doubt. Enough data to boggle the mind of, well, Star Trek's Data.

What does it all mean? We were hoping you could tell us!

Why, just take a gander at the so-called "raw data catalog" (puts the Sears Catalog to shame), and click away.

Check out the "2005 Toxics Release Inventory data for American Samoa," for instance, or "Reservoir Information For Ft. Patrick Henry Reservoir TN." Perhaps your interests -- or curiosities -- lie elsewhere, such as "Land Surface Temperature At Night" or the "Disaggregated Futures-Only Commitments of Traders" [We don't even know what that means!]

It's all there, in the name of accountability, transparency, and sunlight -- as dim as it may appear through the haze of bureaucratic dataspeak. Thousands of records. A substantial body of work. One that calls for a lifetime of review and study. Or so our government would hope.

Never mind that there are no state or local databases for New York yet available on The Empire State has its very own Project Sunlight, which, at the very least, opens up the blinds for those who would search for a glimmer of daylight.

Taking a look at what has been coined as the Open Government Directive (whose acronym -- OGD -- is simply GOD spelled sideways, or OMG sans the middle ;-), we'll be darned if we can make heads or tails of all the data. We're no rocket scientists, mind you, but we do believe we have a little something on the ball. [Pray for the bulk of the Long Island electorate, whose 6th grade reading level may well preclude even a cursory review -- let alone any inkling as to meaning -- of the proferred databases.]

The problem with data, even when it can be extrapolated and understood, is that statistics can be, and typically are, skewed -- dependent upon who's doing the skewing -- to give you exactly the results you want. [See, for instance, those studies on the benefits of chocolate, as funded by the Cocoa Bean Council, and the "smoking really doesn't cause cancer" research, paid for by R.J. Reynolds.] There are, after all, lies, damned lies, and statistics! And coming from the government, well, we all know what circle that takes us in...

Raw data, like raw sewage (think Bay Park) has a certain smell to it. You need to trace the odor to its source, and, in the case of raw data, that would be the government -- be it in Washington, D.C. or, closer to home, on Washington Street in Hempstead -- spending our money (that's tax dollars, folks. It doesn't grow on trees!) on the likes of "Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Observations (CoCoRaHS)" and  "Information Bridge XML Data Service." [Yet another bridge to nowhere?]

True, many, if not a majority, of the enumerated and data-filled initiatives are useful, in one way or another, perhaps even essential. Still, at a time when we should be building afforable housing, creating jobs, and fixing bridges and roadways, among other, less esoteric causes, query as to the necessity of spending money we do not have -- let alone creating, maintaining, and diseminating exhaustive databases related thereto -- on such things as "Wild Horse and Burro" and "Patent Grant Maintenance Fee Events."

Information in the hands of the public is a good thing, as is opening up government, on all levels, to the glaring, cleansing light of day. Then again, too much information, as in raw data that may be as unfit for consumption as raw fish (perhaps it's an acquired taste), serves more to cloud our vision and obscure our view than it does to let in the sunlight. Raw data, without more, is to transparency, as wax paper is to plastic wrap.

By the way, open government groups, such as the Sunlight Foundation, are opening up the OGD databases and commenting on the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculous. See the blogposts at

Hopefully, they can make more sense out of the raw data than we can. [If not, maybe we could get the Rauch Foundation, via the Long Island Index, to fund an initiative to study OGD. OMG!]

No comments:

Post a Comment