The Huge Positive Potential of Digital Technologies

(this page is a part of the essay I wrote for the Open Government Book. For copyright info, see the introduction)


The Huge Positive Potential of Digital Technologies

Democracy implies accountability, efficiency, optimal usage of public money, and transparency in all public operations and services, regardless of whether they are managed by the private or public sector: in a word, openness. Software and digital data can help tremendously to achieve these and other crucial goals. For example, according to Standards and the Smart Grid: The U.S. Experience “increased use of digital information” is one of the essential prerequisites for building the smart energy grid that will help to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign energy and fuel job creation. Getting hundreds of companies around the continent to share this information requires open, standard formats.

There are huge efforts these days to digitize individual medical histories, drug records, test results, and surgeries all in one big file for each individual, called an electronic health record (EHR). Personal EHRs could help to greatly reduce paperwork, treatment costs, and time spent in hospitals and labs, and will facilitate people moving from one city, health insurance company, or service provider to another.

In contrast to the ordeals of Quaid’s children and Rep. Tauzin, doctors could always make the best decisions for your health in the safest, fastest, and cheapest way possible. As long as their computers can read your EHR, of course. Publishing online without legal restrictions raw data such as maps, census records, weather surveys, agricultural statistics, court rulings, and agency budgets (while protecting citizens' privacy, of course) makes two wonderful things possible. One is the generation of new wealth: if both public agencies and private businesses can freely use all that data to make better decisions and offer new services, they’ll minimize their expenses and make more money. This will both stimulate the economy and increase the tax base.

The other advantage of correctly publishing public raw data online is much more control by private citizens over their governments, as well as closer cooperation with them. Having such data online makes it possible for civic-minded programmers to finally build and use “follow the money” search engines. Everybody could use or develop interfaces such as Google Squared to display, all in one table, things such as who got money from a public contract, who approved it, all the present and past relationships among those people (such as sitting on the boards of the same companies), the percentage of contracts assigned to some firm from each public officer, and so on.

It would be much easier for everybody to visualize how numbers, decisions, and physical places are related. You could generate on-the-spot maps that show how tax money moves from one county to another and why, and how it varies over time with the party in power. Residents of each town could see without intermediaries how demographics and pollution sources in any given area increase the occurrence of some specific illness. It would also become much easier to contribute data into these systems, which makes them more useful to public administrators.

Demanding that all public administrations and schools, at all levels, accept and store office files only in nonproprietary standard formats such as OpenDocument (the only viable alternative today to the forced upgrades caused by the continuous changes in .doc, .xls, and .ppt file formats) would leave all their partners free to use whatever office software they like best. At the same time, it would protect the pockets and freedom of choice of millions of small businesses, schools, and students who can’t afford the licensing costs of “industry-standard” word processors.

In principle, the current U.S. administration is in favor of going digital this way. The Obama stimulus package signed in February 2009 provided $19 billion to bring hospitals the benefits of digital technology. The Transparency and Open Government memo includes statements such as the following:

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

The truth, however, is that these and many other things, including FOIA, will be technically possible only if by mandating the use of open, standard formats.

Go to part 6: Free and Open Standards and Software: The Digital Basis of Open Government