June 1, 2009

Data Abort

Found an interesting article, from which I'll pull two excerpts for comparison:

"White House officials now want to make government data sets available for citizens to use however they see fit."

"The problem is figuring out how to organize and display the data in a useful and informative way, instead of forcing people to sift through heaps of mind-numbing spreadsheets."

The first is a visionary statement. It amounts to crowdsourcing data analysis, something that (if applied correctly) could rescue our governments from the technophobic morass they have so willingly plunged into. At the same time, it would provide a spectacular resource for future machine learning research.

The second, if taken at face value, is facepalm-worthy. Why? If you want a gesture like this to be effective, you have to supply the raw data. Standard graphs and charts aren't enough; let us decide how we want to visualize your data. Let us rip your datasets apart with state-of-the-art statistical analyses and classification algorithms. Better yet - allow us to upload our homebrew visualizations, hold an online voting process, and host the best examples.

Imagine this simple gesture taken to its logical conclusion: complete data transparency of government actions. There would be no room for nepotism, pork-barrel spending, and other forms of shady backroom politics. We would finally have the power to inspect the inner workings of our government, much as our intelligence agencies now monitor us. After all, it is extremely improbable that the likes of CSIS and NSA will give up the incredible power offered by telecommunications, much as it is laughable to expect the world's nuclear powers to spontaneously and permanently renounce their missile stocks; the technology is there, the knowledge is there, and nothing short of the complete destruction of mankind will change that. The best we can do is to level the playing field.

This sort of talk immediately raises national security concerns. Should it? What if every citizen had the ability to assess national security threats, much as every Wikipedia user has the ability to stop malicious edits in their tracks? Which model, in the end, is more robust - the cathedral of centralized government, or the bazaar of direct democracy?

Enough ranting from me; I've got some projective geometry to tackle.

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