“Better data is a better path to job creation than a government stimulus package.”
Jake Brewer of the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency in government organisation, made this claim at a recent event in Washington DC. He also went on to say: “We think we can create more jobs with open data than government stimulus plans.” Ideally, the job of government in tough times is to use the money from taxes accrued in the good times to help its citizens weather the storm. If the government isn’t helping its people then there has to be some questions about its functioning and purpose: questions that could be answered by better information made available in a more useful way.
In the thirties in America, President Roosevelt through his Works Progress Administration and National Recovery Administration programmes made a massive infrastructure investment in transcontinental highways and the building of dams that served not only to create jobs, but that also went a long way to making people’s lives better over the long term by facilitating trade and growth. In the UK, there has been quantitative easing which is just another way of saying printing money and in Obama’s US, the stimulus package seems to mainly consist of shoring up banks and preventing individual States of the Union from going bankrupt. Obviously, times and circumstances are different, but the finger-in-the-dyke approach of our modern leaders seems to be of less long-term value than the approach taken by their forebears in the years of the Great Depression.
Clearly more needs to be done. And liberated and accessible data would be a start. How would data work in creating jobs? Well, let’s assume data wants to be free as Stewart Brand claimed. Unless people are free to access and make use of information, then the value of the data is zero. Making it available makes it valuable. It is axiomatic that the more relevant and useful the information that one has at one’s disposal then subsequent decisions are much better informed. (Even though, as in any human endeavour, the conclusions derived from the data and thus the decisions may be wrong.) But the possibilities of quick, positive, meaningful change far outweigh any supposed problems with people either mishandling or feeling overwhelmed by too much information.
Jake threw up a slide at the event that had the following logic train:
- Government -> Public Data
- Public Data -> Online
- Online -> Transparency
- Transparency -> Accountability
- Accountability -> Trust
- Trust -> Engagement
The first place to start looking for data is the government. After all, it is ours, we paid for it. With a more efficient use of data, we can create the possibility of a more efficient government doing more of the right things at the right time. With a more efficient government, resources can then be freed to be applied to the initiatives that could bring long-term peace and prosperity to a country. In a peaceful and prosperous country, we have the conditions where people can really thrive: to be more creative in all sorts of spheres from enterprise to education, from healthcare to construction. (Properly-built environmentally-sound houses and workspaces can be provided in places where they are needed and wanted.)
With the right information made available, better decisions are possible, and with the right will, many things unthought of before, or unimagined, become possible. Of course, there are vested and entrenched interests who would, in order to hold on to their power and influence, seek to prevent this from happening. But in a more transparent environment any attempt to corral data and spread disinformation would be very quickly spotted for what it is – an outright lie, and thus discredited. What Sunlight has done is to bring back the focus to the idea that representatives are actually that – representatives of our collective and individual wills rather than elected autocrats who go on to fail to fulfill their publicly-mandated remit and gorge themselves at the trough of self-interest and cronyism.
On another slide Jake showed us “The Transparency Cycle”. Although it looks busy at first, it bears being studied. There is an excellent description of how to read it here. If we can use our own information harboured on government filing systems and servers to more effectively manage our own lives, then it is entirely possible that as Jake said: “We can create more jobs with open data than government stimulus plans.”