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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: There's sun in the fight for government transparency

By Tom Warhover
March 18, 2011 | 10:24 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

As with all good things, Sunshine Week had to end.

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As a parting gift of openness, I want to pass along some of the cool places you can go in the pursuit of more transparency in government.

These come courtesy of the Open Missouri conference on Thursday at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

During a break, Jo Sapp of the League of Women Voters said she needed to make a list of the sites mentioned. Good idea.

Code for America bills itself as “a new kind of public service.” A bunch of really smart Web geeks work with civic leaders to build stuff to make governments more accountable and transparent.

According to its site, the non-partisan group concentrates on city projects. For instance, the challenges listed for its Philadelphia project include figuring out a way that government can fit into social networks on the Internet and developing a product for use by 1.5 million users. In Washington, the task is to build collaboration tools.

Everything is built as open source. Is there an application for Columbia? Should mid-Missouri host a “data camp” to attack our issues?

In 2007, the government built a searchable website, USAspending.gov, to track federal spending. But, as the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison said at the conference, most federal agencies aren’t reporting their spending, and many of those that do contain incorrect information.

Incorrect to the tune of $1.2 trillion in 2009, according to Sunlight’s executive director Ellen Miller when she testified before Congress earlier this month.

So Sunlight built its own website, Clearspending, which documents the errors in reporting. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for instance, under-reported its spending by $7.7 million in 2009. That’s peanuts compared to the Small Business Administration ($171 million non-reported) or the EPA ($8.2 billion under-reported).

Besides a name befitting Sunshine Week, the Sunlight Foundation has its hands in lots of projects: Checking Influence, Open Congress and Influence Explorer are a few.

The Kansas City Star offers a whole page of usable data. Also bucking the trend of mashing two words into one, it’s called Info Central. Sure, some of the information is silly; I doubt that knowing the most popular names of dogs and cats will make municipal government run better. But it’s all pretty easy to use. I particularly like the home appraisal values pages.

Other data sets include open meetings, area school scores and restaurant inspections.

Investigative reporter Mike Mansur, who spoke at the Open Missouri conference, said many data sets and stories come from just one question: “How much does that cost?”

If the Missourian were to make an Info Central for you, what data sets should be on there? Would you be willing to help collect them?

There are plenty of other ways to find more about your government.

Open Missouri catalogs many of the pieces of public data available to you. (I’ll let George Kennedy tell you more about it.) Health.Data.Gov does the same with federal health-related websites.

There is much more to be done in opening public information to those who own it — us. But there’s much more available in a way anyone can use than I could have imagined even a decade ago.

Tom