Nader and Norquist deconstruct the Data Act

Wikimedia images of Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist.

Ralph Nader (left) and Grover Norquist (right) teamed up at the Data Transparency Coalition’s Data Act Summit. (Images: Wikimedia)

Unlikely bedfellows finding common ground? Maybe the power of A/C on a sweltering D.C. evening had something to do with it.

The progressive populist Ralph Nader and the anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist together championed open government data this week – though after a fairly optimistic conversation, Nader capped things off – in typical “Unsafe at Any Speed” style -- with a heavy dose of trepidation.

The topic du jour: 2014’s Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (Data Act).

Expose everything

Uncle Sam’s data needs to be open to the public, Nader and Norquist heartily agreed.

“Never underestimate the bureaucracy’s creativity,” Nader said of agencies quibbling over data formats as a stalling tactic or delivering FOIA’d documents in the least usable formats possible.

Both men, addressing the Data Transparency Coalition’s 2nd annual Data Act Summit on June 10, said simply getting government data out to the public was the most important thing, with ensuring that the data is in machine-readable formats a secondary concern. They also addressed security issues – “I’m for hard encryption,” Norquist said, while Nader argued personal information should be legally protected on social networks – but the main focus stayed on exposing government data by any means necessary.

“The summaries are not enough,” Nader said, calling for the full texts of grants, contracts and basically everything the government does to be openly published “with [only] a few redactions.”

“If the federal government paid for a study, the full study should be available,” Norquist added, noting how media outlets have generally stopped accepting poll results without seeing the poll’s “guts” – the questions used, sample size, etc. – and how he hopes the same scrutiny will soon be applied to government-sponsored research.

“What inspires me the most is corruption, dealing with corruption,” Nader said of the push to open data. When it comes to the Defense Department and contractor community that supports it, Nader said, “the amount of waste is truly staggering.”

Exposing contracting documents could help people recognize this waste, he said – though byzantine jargon will still stand in the way. He told the story of the Army paying $450 for a claw hammer after the simple tool was routed through the complicated procurement system. “The Pentagon linguists, they called a $9 hammer that you can get at a hardware store a ‘unilateral impact generator,’” Nader marveled.

Of course, ensuring that data can actually be searched, used and understood is key, and the Data Act guidance released last month by the Office of Management and Budget is aimed at supporting that goal.

But the Data Act won’t be successful without a response from the people, Nader said.

Data overload

“I can’t handle all this data, take me now!” Nader said, channeling an average Joe facing “overload” in the data age. “When you talk to techno twits on data, all they talk about is producing it and distributing it, and then the psychologists are going to have to take over.”

Nader said the Data Act and similar transparency pushes are doomed to fail, no matter how accessible and searchable the government makes its information, without dedicated observers making sense of it all. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for most citizens to understand what’s going on, he said.

“The whole government contract state has very few reporters on it, and the ones who do it, do it in a very pro forma way,” Nader said. Just because it’s out there, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to be reported,” Nader said, calling for “seminars” to teach reporters how to wade through government data.

“If you don’t have an expanded reporter corps,” he claimed, “you’re not going to get the benefit of the Data Act.”

Norquist was a little more bullish. As Nader worried that people would be overwhelmed by a glut of information, Norquist stayed positive. “We got used to 50 [kinds of coffee], we’ll get used to this,” he chimed in. “Or our kids will and they’ll explain it to us.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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