“Improving Federal Spending Transparency: Lessons Drawn from Recovery.gov” by Raymond Yee, Eric C. Kansa and Erik Wilde of the UC Berkeley School of Information “explores the effectiveness of accountability measures deployed for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (‘Recovery Act’ or ‘ARRA’).” Although data has been released as part of Open Government initiatives, the authors point out a lack of transparency due to data silos, highly distributed information sources and lack of controlled access points, among other reasons.
According to the authors, ARRA data resembles a jigsaw puzzle – the legislation is complex and there are many players and sources of data. In my view topic maps could help with a number of problems cited in the paper: they could build a bridge between several budgetary disclosure systems, they could expose the structure behind ARRA and make explicit the relationships between legislation and the wishes of Congress, implementation by the Treasury Dept., allocation of money to different accounts, and spending patterns (including agencies and recipients). Links could go back and forth, connecting data from across agencies (e.g. spending data –> program documentation –> legislation authorizing funding for that program). Obviously, machine-processable and unambiguous identifiers as well as controlled vocabularies are needed for various entities – this seems to be a weakness in the data so far, though.
The authors also call for an account of the data sources, which can be “first-class citizens” in topic maps, i.e. topics in their own right that can be talked about. Moreover, they stress the importance of efficient information retrieval systems – if you can’t find the information, what use is access to data? Budgetary metadata of high quality is critical to findability and useful display.
Classification would also be conducive to discovery, keeping in mind that “… classification is not necessarily an objective process. It is shaped by the assumptions and goals of people and organizations. These worldviews and goals often see disagreement and evolve over time.” Topic maps have mechanisms to reflect changes in terminology without discarding older terms, and different views of the world can coexist and be indicated by scope.
Access to data doesn’t automatically imply transparency and findability. The increasing number of Open Government efforts (so far primarily in the U.K. and the U.S.) look like a great opportunity for topic maps.