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Bring me your tired, your poor, your data

Americans marked Independence Day last weekend, and of late, math geeks and transparent government enthusiasts have been celebrating independence of a key commodity -- information.

The Personal Democracy Forum conference, which I wrote about last week, featured a pretty rapturous event, by all accounts.

New U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra unveiled the "IT spending dashboard", which allows users to check in on information technology contracts across departments of the U.S. federal government.

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Hmm, let's float over to entries for the Department of Homeland Security ... and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- the U.S. law that determines how people cross their, and by extension, our, border. Click here to find the contracts. You'll see that the Department has spent $112.7-million on 7 IT contracts for the Initiative.

I've checked in with the Canada Border Services Agency and the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada to find out what they make available online.

And there is a trove if you know where to look -- for instance, you can find an $811,965 year-long IT consulting contract that began January 5 for Emerion Inc.

The link that takes you there is a bit messier than ; it's (Official Bilingualism = long URLs)

But you can't easily search the Canadian government's IT spending by program within departments -- a key requirement, when you consider the recent history of out-of-control technology spending (Ontario's welfare system was re-designed by the old Andersen Consulting for hundreds of millions of dollars -- and the fix didn't even allow for a rate increase! And then there's the expensive, IT-consultant heavy effort to get electronic health records in Ontario).

Further, the raw data isn't available in a format that can be manipulated, and the interface isn't the most user-friendly, two other benefits of the new U.S. portal.

All of this matters because if journalists and citizens can work together, parsing and crunching public data (without having to rely on the cumbersome and specialized Freedom of Information and Access to Information process), they can smoke out problems with our public services and public spending.

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They might be able to shed light on which projects are doing well and which ones have gone overboard on spending; and on which contractors are suspiciously regular favourites of the incumbent regime.

And that can -- coming from a simple online database -- can create better policy, and a more responsive government.

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