Many blogs and news outlets recently expressed concern with the drastic $32 million cuts to the Electronic Government Fund in the proposed Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act (see Huffington Post, Cairns Blog, and Computer World, among others). As an open government advocate, I am also disappointed in the proposed cuts to the Electronic Government Fund and believe that open data is an integral part of democracy. Despite these proposed budget cuts, however, I believe that we can continue to leverage citizen ideas and volunteers to find new, creative ways to increase transparency.
The Eclipse Foundation, for example, is offering OpenUp awards in the UK for projects that use open data to improve people’s lives. A recent Guardian article featured one project winner-The Great British Public Toilet Map-that would crowdsource the collection of information about public toilet locations. The website would track which councils have published public toilet open data, and which have not. Where data does not exist, the public can contact their councils to ask them to join in with the project. How can we rely on similar strategies to collect and process data that citizens care about at a local level in the United States?
Beth Noveck’s Wiki Government also provides an interesting overview of creative crowdsourcing techniques at the federal level. She describes how the peer-to-patent system helped to leverage contributions from the general public and increase the transparency of the patent decision making process. By aggregating the collective knowledge of non-government employees, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office was able to leverage limited resources and gather better information to make decisions. If we can rely on volunteers to contribute to the patent process, can we also utilize volunteers to collect data for open government purposes? Would volunteers be willing and able to help aggregate data?
Some government data cannot be collected by non-government officials, because they simply do not have access to the information. We also undoubtedly need some federal funds to help ensure the accuracy of the information and to maintain data platforms. However, crowdsourcing may help us to find innovative ways to preserve transparency despite the proposed budget cuts to the Electronic Government Fund.