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Thinktank Aims To Crowdsource Government Earmark Analysis 100

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the forcing-a-new-evolution-of-corruption dept.
Al writes "The Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, DC, hopes to raise an army of web volunteers to analyze all the earmarks in government bills. The group's new Sunlight Labs transparency corps invites users to join an effort to analyze the information collaboratively. Users are presented with PDFs released by hundreds of different offices and asked to enter the pertinent information like the date and dollar amount of a request, name of the requester, description of the project, and so on. These then become part of a searchable database. The project's launch roughly coincided with the launch earlier this month of the government's new IT Dashboard. But this tool is somewhat limited — users can find the primary recipients of IT project funding, but not subcontractors; it's not easy to discern the origins of contracts or their geographic distribution, and it's almost impossible to see how they are connected to elected officials."
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Thinktank Aims To Crowdsource Government Earmark Analysis

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  • by Presto Vivace (882157) <marshall@prestovivace.biz> on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:35PM (#28931119) Homepage Journal
    contrary to popular opinion, the big difference between lobbyists and ordinary voters isn't money (although money matters), it is access to information on a timely basis. Putting information online will have a huge impact on the legislative process.
  • "These then become part of a searchable database."

    There should be a law that agencies enter this information themselves.
  • by Etrias (1121031) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:42PM (#28931227)
    On the surface, this does sound like a good project, one that does bring a bit more transparency to our government as a whole.

    However, if there is a groundswell against earmarks, I wonder how it's going to affect projects which at first glance don't look worthwhile. I think it would disproportionately affect science and the arts as they're often seen as luxuries rather than necessities.
  • by schnikies79 (788746) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:46PM (#28931281)

    Then they should get their own bill. Spending for the arts shouldn't be tacked on a defense bill just like a new weapon shouldn't be tacked on to a arts bill.

  • by Dr_Ken (1163339) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:50PM (#28931339) Journal
    Hmm...Not really. Earmarks for "other people" are what is unpopular. If the earmark is for "you" then it's cool no matter how outlandish a waste of money it is and screw what the NYT or CNN or Limbaugh think about it too, eh? That's the way it works where I live anyhow. I am represented by a freshman Dem [house.gov] who is representing a district that is 58% Rep and he thinks he can buy himself some goodwill, newspaper endorsements and popularity points by "bringing home the bacon". No amount of watch dogging for pork is gonna matter to him if the people in his district are happy about the new money flowing in.
  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:01PM (#28931467)

    contrary to popular opinion, the big difference between lobbyists and ordinary voters isn't money (although money matters), it is access to information on a timely basis. Putting information online will have a huge impact on the legislative process.

    One problem, though, is that there can be an insanely short time between when a bill comes out of committee, and when it's put up for a vote. One vile lesson that both Democrats and Republicans have learned is that members will vote on a bill (rather than abstain), even if they have only several hours to review thousands of pages.

    Unless this crowd-sourcing can review bills fast enough for even well-intentioned legislators to be aware of important reasons to vote 'no', I think it will do little good.

    Anyone interested in this issue should check out Read the Bill [readthebill.org].

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:01PM (#28931469)
    It is not in the interest of the legislators to pass such a law, so if by some chance they were to create one, it would be written in such a way as to make the information APPEAR to be useful, but actually be incomprehensible.
    The current leaders in Congress have been saying for the last couple of weeks that it is unreasonable to expect Congressional Representatives to read the bills before they vote on them because they don't have the time and even if they did have the time, they couldn't understand them.
  • by Pollardito (781263) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:03PM (#28931493)
    All the information in the world won't help an ordinary voter that's not happy, unless he can talk to someone up there writing these laws that will listen. That's what the money is buying, access.

    You think that the pharmaceutical companies spent $40 million dollars lobbying the health care process [npr.org], because they had extra cash laying around? With that money they got exactly what they wanted out of the process, while average Joe Voter is probably not going to have the same success even with these tools.
  • by ForexCoder (1208982) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:18PM (#28931697)
    Earmarks account for only 1% to 2% of the budget. What is really needed is a wiki that encompasses the whole federal budget (all $2.9 trillion of it). Then the crowd would really have a chance of finding waste in the budget and of making some really progress in bringing spending into line with revenues.
  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:27PM (#28931807)

    The current leaders in Congress have been saying for the last couple of weeks that it is unreasonable to expect Congressional Representatives to read the bills before they vote on them because they don't have the time and even if they did have the time, they couldn't understand them.

    Well.... it is unreasonable to expect that.

    Then they need to craft laws that they can understand, or resign and leave the job to someone who will (or who can comprehend the laws being proposed).
    If a legislator cannot understand a law that is put before him/her, that legislator should vote against it. If the bill is too big to read through before voting on it, the legislator should vote against it. If there isn't enough time to keep up with the legislation being put forward, then too much legislation is being put forward.

  • by ArcherB (796902) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:42PM (#28931999) Journal

    At least they're going this far. Imagine this happening under the Bush office. Nope, I didn't think you could.

    P.S. I am *not* an Obama fanboi.

    Um... the Bush Office didn't write bills. That job falls solely under the Congressional branch of the US government. The "Bush Office" falls under the Executive Branch, just like every other president.

    People give the president too much credit/blame. All the president does is sign the bills. Congress writes them and sends them to the Prez. The Prez can either sign or veto.

    Please refer to the following educational video [youtube.com] for future reference. :-)

  • Re:It's about time (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:48PM (#28932097) Journal
    Just putting all bills under revision control would be handy...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:53PM (#28932187)

    If I can't understand the consequences of my decisions at my job, then I am considered incompetent.
    How is it different for legislators?
    If the system is such that it simply does not allow enough time to actually comprehend the full amount of draft, then the process needs to be changed.
    It is simply unacceptable that our representatives vote on bills that they can not fully understand and comprehend.

  • by cbs4385 (929248) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:54PM (#28932209)
    But then when will they have the time to engage in their real job, raising money for their reelection bid?
  • by SEWilco (27983) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:55PM (#28932225) Journal
    "Senator, have you read this bill?"
  • by richardkelleher (1184251) on Monday August 03, 2009 @04:16PM (#28932545) Homepage

    I'm all for exposure to the public of this type of data, but, can we trust them not to filter the data to forward their own political agenda. I think not. Like every group in Washington, they will filter out the sins of the people whose views they support while exposing the sins of those whose views they oppose.

    Also, can we trust that the "Crowd" they attract to sift out this data will not be partisan in what they record. Again, I think not.

    I've been watching this crap play out for half a century and studied the games that went on for the half century before that and it is always the same old crap. The design of our system of government perpetuates it.

  • we agree! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sbma44 (694130) on Monday August 03, 2009 @04:48PM (#28932981)

    I work at the Sunlight Foundation (though not on this project), and I feel I can safely say that we completely agree with you that the government *should* be issuing this data in a more easily usable format.

    To be fair, though, it's not always as easy as all that: when you introduce such an infrastructure you need to make sure there are staff resources to handle the data entry, training available to help them do it, and somebody checking the overall data quality. My project's been looking at a lot of grant data, and we've consistently found that the central grant data directory -- a data set called FAADS -- is of lower quality than the reports issued on each program's website in excel, PDF, HTML tables or who knows what else. It doesn't make a lot of sense to people like you and me, but centralized systems really do introduce an added layer of difficulty for the data entry people. Just keeping track of the endless requirements imposed by legislation can be pretty daunting.

    ...none of which is to say that this shouldn't happen. It should! But it does explain why "publish earmarks" and "publish earmarks in a central location, in a machine-readable format" are two different things, and why the latter is more difficult to successfully ask for. We'll get there, though.

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