The media has yet to pick up on this but it’s effect will likely be profound: In a Google Group, Chauncyt posted a message (via Raw Thought) about implementation instructions for the stimulus bill [PDF] that require government agencies to report the money they disburse via RSS.
Significantly, the directive is specific about the type and format of the data to be published and even states a preferred XML format (Atom 1.0) for delivery. These requirements ensure that the information is usable and not simply an unstructured data dump.
So what’s the significance?
It is certainly in concert with the President Obama’s pledge for more transparency in government. Once the publishing systems are in place, this should enable real-time, public reporting of spending. That is a huge step in favor of ensuring accountability for the spending of public funds.
It also demonstrates an undeclared faith in the principle that more heads are better than one and the efficacy of crowdsourcing. Publishing this data in such a usable format invites anyone to use their creativity to mash it up with other sets of data to learn more about the disbursements and to easily visualize it.
So that’s the argument for why requiring government data to be published via RSS is sound policy.
But does it also have political benefits?
I believe it does. The most significant immediate benefit I can see is someone mashing up this data with Google Maps to illustrate, for example, where within the state of Minnesota those dollars would be spent and on what. The resulting map would allow any citizen to see what stimulus dollars would be spent in their community.
You can imagine how such a map would create grassroots pressure on Governors across the nation (one of whom we know) who have stated that they may not want to take the federal money.
The idea is long overdue, frankly, but this also happens to be a case where politics makes good policy.
What we need next is an XML standards body for figuring out what types of government data require what types of formats.