Obama Is An Open Government Pioneer, Spymaster Dataholic

Love him or hate him, President Obama is no hypocrite: he’s been as fiercely innovative at encouraging citizen input to improve governance as he has been in secretly stealing Americans’ private information. Transparent budget spending, crowdsourcing government waste, unprecedented spending on polls, collecting school performance metrics, and rewarding civic app designers have co-existed with a massive expansion in Internet snooping and big-data spying.

In short, Obama is a philosophically consistent dataholic — a policy that other innovative/civil liberty-ignoring political leaders, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have proudly championed.

(Note to commenters: I’m not defending Obama’s massive spying apparatus (I find it invasive). I am arguing that we’ll likely have to choose between a civil libertarian  and an open government champion.)

Many were quick to label Obama a hypocrite after a string of expose’s detailing the National Security Agency’s massive phone and Internet spying apparatus, “It is the very sort of thing against which Mr. Obama once railed,” wrote The New York Times editorial board in an uncharacteristically scathing OpEd. Or, in the blogging equivalent of our Aol cousins at Huffington Post, “GEORGE W. OBAMA”.


But, before we brand Obama as some power-hungry George W. look-alike, it’s worth noting that Obama has given extraordinary resources to so-called “open government”, building digital platforms that encourage citizens to monitor, influence, and design public programs.

  • During the multi-billion-dollar economic stimulus package, he took the risky route of allowing citizens to monitor how the money was spent and track the progress of projects in the groundbreaking transparency websites of Data.gov and Recovery.gov.
  • The data-hungry prez crowdsourced waste monitoring under the aptly titled “SAVE Award,” which recognizes government employees who submit ideas on how to trim unnecessary spending.
  • He oversaw the creation of petition platform, WeThePeople. The widely popular direct democracy system has helped unearth all kinds of latent political movements and helped empower the success grassroots movement to permit consumers to unlock their cell phones.
  • His department of education pioneered an open government website to help parents know which colleges were the best fit and how public schools were performing.
  • His first (failed) pick for a consumer protection agency chief, now-Senator Elizabeth Warren, was primarily tasked with making banking and credit card information more accessible to financially semi-literate citizens.
  • One of the President’s first executive orders was the creation of a Chief Technology Officer, charged with opening up warehouses of government data, like GPS and weather data, so that civic hackers could collaborative build new social services to accomplish the Administration’s ambitious policy ends. For instance, in a plan to reduce America’s glutenous thirst for energy, he released household energy use data, which is now used by data-visualization startups, such as Simple Energy, to help homeowners methodically reduce their utility bills.

And, on the Spying side

  • The Federal government vastly ramped up its big-data, pattern-recognition spying program; for the first time, security agencies combined all shorts of datasets on every everything from flight records to the names of Americans hosting foreign exchange students.
  • As revealed this week, the National Security Agency is secretly collecting phone records of every single U.S. call, and (reportedly) has direct access to server data from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and many other major Internet firms.

And, for good measure, the amount his administration has spent on polling has spiked 40% over his predecessor’s ($4.4M vs. $3.1M).

In short, Obama holds the quite philosophically consistent position that more information is better; nor is he alone. New York City’s Michael Bloomberg has arguably opened up more government data than any state in the union, turned abandoned payphones into Wi-Fi-hotspots, and encouraged civic hackers to design streamlined public services; he’s also admitted he’s perfectly fine with greater drone spying.

In an information age, we’re witnessing a new information-hungry politician. There is, apparently, a cost for those who love the inspiring direct democracy of broad digital civic engagement. The question we must ask ourselves is if an open government champion is worth the cost of spying.

[Thanks to Keepcalm-o-matic for the image]