Open data pioneer: ‘I didn’t ask Congress, I just did it’

WITH LIBERTY AND DATA FOR ALL: Open data guru Waldo Jaquith is helping lead a revolution in government accountability.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

Waldo Jaquith didn’t set out to be a pioneer of government accountability.

But after years of experimenting with government data for fun, the director of the U.S. Open Data Institute and creator of Ethics.gov finds himself at the forefront of a transparency revolution.

“I started connecting with people around the country who were also looking to create independent open data government websites,” Jaquith told Watchdog.org about his early foray into programming.

“We would take the data that government provided in a terrible format and present it to people in an understandable way that people could relate to and connect back to other sources of information.”

What started as a hobby 20 years ago turned into a career when former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra contacted Jaquith to create Ethics.gov.

Jaquith said the Obama administration wanted a website that would track political contributions and other government data in a user-friendly online format. Prior to his arrival, the administration tried to create the site but failed, as the task involved gathering data from multiple agencies and Congress.

“I guess they kept asking nicely, like, ‘Hey Congress, can we have your data?’ And Congress would say, ‘No.’ But I didn’t ask, I just did it. And we got a pretty useful website as a result,” he said.

“Some people were upset, but the White House stood by me all the way and knew exactly what I was up to. It never occurred to me that I would call up Congress and ask permission. You just do it. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Ben Kinsley, policy and operations manager for Campaign for Vermont, a group that promotes government ethics and transparency, said Jaquith is helping raise awareness about government accountability.

“Jaquith has been very involved with transparency and ethics at the federal government level, and now he’s trying to bring that down to the states.”

Campaign for Vermont has been a leading advocate for stronger ethics laws at the statehouse. Group leaders are endorsing legislation that would eliminate conflicts of interest, enact a revolving door policy and create an independent ethics commission. Kinsley said Vermont needs to be more transparent with financial disclosures as well.

“We’re trying to push (financial transparency) to the forefront. It got some traction in the House. New rules in the House require legislators to disclose their financial holdings when they take office. We’d like to see the Senate do that as well,” he said.

On the open data front, Vermont’s Department of Finance and Management recently launched Spotlight, an online transparency tool that allows the public to see where government money comes from and where it is being spent.

Sue Zeller, Vermont’s chief performance officer, said individuals formerly needed to search dozens of government sites to get data. Once found, the data rarely would be in a user-friendly format.

“We have data coming out of our ears, but it’s almost always in hard copy reports, so it doesn’t lend itself toward posting these kind of results on a website,” Zeller said.

But Spotlight fixes that problem by taking the most requested data and presenting it in user-friendly formats online.

Jaquith said states are an important frontier for open data, and he cited Vermont as a state that could use additional help.

“What we haven’t seen is a lot of uptake on the state level. We’ll have open data generally, but it’s an insufficient amount of takeup as far as I’m concerned — especially the open data on a state level of campaign finance. Pretty frequently that’s been bad, and I think Vermont is exhibit A of how to do that badly.”

He noted that Vermont’s data is often provided in PDF, which is a step up from handwritten notes or driving to Montpelier to search file cabinets. But he said the time had come for Vermont and other states to make open financial data a priority.

“If there’s just one data set that you’re going to provide in a modern open format, make it campaign finance data — that’s what people really want. The trick is, for elected officials, it has the potential to embarrass them.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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