Big Data’s Potential to Foster Transparency and Accountability in Government

Transparency

Transparency is one of the bedrock principles of democracy, as TDV has written. In government of, by and for the people we, as citizens, have a right to know.

Unfortunately, transparency, though a worthy political goal, is often illusive. This is especially true in these days of extreme political dysfunction.

Donald Trump refuses to make his tax returns public, or disclose the names of visitors to the White House. Are we surprised? No. Those damned Democrats would use the information against him!

And that is exactly the point: the taxes and work related actions of government officials, elected and appointed, should be able to withstand public scrutiny. If those officials, including Donald Trump, cannot be transparent, they should be disqualified from serving.

But the issue of transparency is bigger than just Donald Trump. Government agencies are not transparent often because full and complete disclosure can hurt some people, or make others look bad. If the aggrieved person happens to be, say, a senior member of Congress who serves on an appropriations committee, well, maybe your funding won’t be there next year.

For its part, TDV frequently mines government data. The good news is a lot of the data already exists. The bad news is the data is often so fragmented across multiple agencies, in many different formats, that it is often difficult if not impossible to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

Enter Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Someone with a net worth of more than $20 billion. As reported in the New York Times, Ballmer is funding a non-profit, “USAFacts.org”, which collects government data from multiple sources and puts that data on the internet in an accessible and consistent format. A beta version, available to the public, was launched this past Tuesday (April 18).

And, oh by the way, those tax breaks for the rich we talked about? According to USAFacts.org, middle income taxpayers earning between $31,000 and $61,000 receive tax breaks averaging about $2,400 per filer (individual or household).

Meanwhile, the top 1%, earning more than $711,000 per year, get tax breaks averaging about $48,000 per year, which is more than the total most average taxpayers earn.

Good to know – we are finally getting a platform that makes government data available in an accessible format – and it has the potential to reveal some areas in need of reform – like excessive tax breaks for the wealthy.

Thank you Steve Ballmer for helping strengthen our democracy.