by the Obama administration to provide greater government transparency
will rely heavily on the Internet to enable better public participation
in our democracy. Greater openness largely revolves around web-based
tools that broaden access to government data and research, while
allowing comment and even citizen collaboration. The democratization of
data is a key outcome of this pledge, with implications for greater
Geospatial visualization provides a unique
means to break through barriers between government agencies and across
geographies to foster a more efficient bureaucracy. The ability to
drill down into our own states and communities with detailed data about
government programs and the state of the economy can provide a
clarifying vision for action where action is needed most.
Transparency and Accountability
By viewing all government data
geographically, we can see clearly and comprehensively how federal
dollars are being spent. The idea for a unifying map to collect and
display government information is important for a standardized
representation and the ability to compare data from different
locations. Geovisualization of government action, correlated to a
project or threat, does a great deal to provide public assurance that
their government is acting on their behalf.
This week’s scare of a swine flu pandemic
has provided a call from many quarters for open data regarding such
health threats. The availability of real-time information for this
outbreak, along with details on the government’s reactions, could prove
to be a great service in allaying public fears, and improving the
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
(ARRA) is another example where geospatial visualization could provide
reassurances, and spur more efficient action. There’s ongoing
discussions this week* about the information technology tools to make
this process more efficient and inclusive. Some of the more popular
topics relate to geographic visualization.
Transparency allows us to see through many
levels of data control and administration, and allows citizens to make
their own conclusions based on their own interpretations. With the
erosion of newspapers, there is a declining investigative body to hold
government accountable. By making data openly available, and by
providing easy tools to visualize and analyze data, our government can
foster trust, and gain insight into their own effectiveness by opening
the tools of oversight to outside entities.
Funds allocated by the federal government
for entitlement or “pork barrel” spending are largely hidden in the
minutia of bills. There’s increasing pressure to do away with these pet
projects, and what better way to expose and limit their use than to put
them on a map.
What would we learn if we compared
campaign finance records with maps of projects in a congressional
district? Would politics as usual go away if a correlation was made
between contributions and influence, and the award of projects to those
that helped fund the campaign?
Campaign finance records are public record and have been mapped this election year by such sites as OpenSecrets.org.
It would be an interesting exercise to combine this detail with local
projects and local influence to correlate if and how government
business can be bought.
Given the enormous amount of investment
that’s necessary to rebuild and repair aging infrastructure, a national
system to catalog and prioritize that infrastructure seems like a
prudent first investment. While the decision on what infrastructure to
repair is a local one, the idea to combine needs into one central
system would give federal lawmakers a better sense of policy priorities.
GIS has long been an asset management tool
that is applied to the maintenance, repair and replacement of
infrastructure in such industries as electric, gas and water utilities.
The tools are in place to catalog and evaluate large amounts of
geographically distributed infrastructure elements, and to identify
weaknesses, prioritize replacement, and apply cost/benefit analysis.
The funds from the stimulus plan (ARRA)
are already mostly allocated by state and local entities, and projects
are underway. These projects could form the foundation of a system that
could track our performance on these projects, and could then be
applied to all of the other inventory that’s in need of repair or
Ultimately, the role of transparency is to
provide a public measurement of success, and assurance of government
efficiency. It’s not enough to release reams of information in
spreadsheets and tabular reports that can’t be collated and compared.
This information must be in standardized databases and consistent
formats for visualization and analysis that’s meaningful and effective.
Moving toward a more transparent
government is a bold move that breaks down a myriad of institutional
barriers. Similarly GIS breaks down barriers between data from
disparate sources to be viewed and analyzed via a map interface. When
enacting transparency, let’s be certain that visualization of our data
becomes a lasting benefit.
* The National Dialogue, A public forum for the use of IT for Recovery.gov (search GIS for various ideas)
Democratizing Data, The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center
Weaving a National Map: Review of the U.S. Geological Survey Concept of the National Map, The National Academies Press, 2003
Add Mapping and Geographic Analysis to Recovery.Gov, ESRI site with video and additional details
Note: This column alternates weekly between Vector1 Media editors. Matt
Ball is editor Americas/Asia Pacific for V1 Magazine and V1 Energy