July 6, 2007

Open source activists aim to produce transparent federal budget information

Author: Rod Amis

Earlier this year, former US senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley published The New American Story, a book about reforming the American agenda. As part of that process and as a public citizen, he has joined open source activists to produce a Web-based window into the US federal budget.

Jimmy Wales of Wikia.com, Silona Bonewald of the League of Technical Voters, and Taylor Willingham from the LBJ Family of Organizations are others involved in the new initiative. In August, the group will hold a confab in Austin, Texas, to begin development of the ambitious project.

Bradley says, "Democracy is more responsive when people have good information. The purpose of the Transparent Federal Budget is to allow anyone to go onto the Internet and to discover how much is being spent on any particular area such as roads, bridges, breast cancer, missiles, secondary education. You could keyword search to identify specific places in the federal budget where money is being spent on a particular category. Then you could link to the floor debate in Congress about that part of the federal budget and to the votes that were taken about that subject, and who voted which way, and then link to the campaign contributors of that particular congressman or senator. The Transparent Federal Budget would allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable."

So why open source? "Open source allows different communities easy access to the information and allows them to further develop it," Bradley says.

From Willingham's perspective, "How could it be otherwise? It's our whole philosophy! Why not have a process to solve a problem in a way that builds community while building a tool for communities to use to solve problems while building community. Besides, it's way too big for one organization to tackle alone, and do we really trust a single organization to be a gatekeeper over this technology and information?"

Wales says, "Open source has built a revolution in the world of software. We now know that the old programming adage that 'given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow' applies far beyond the world of software."

Geeks are not known to get involved in politics. Normally, they are skeptical of people in the public sphere. But Wales says, "I am a strong advocate for transparency in government and business, and I am excited about bringing together a group of interesting people who have the ability to help us 'watchdog' the process. I think that this is a completely bipartisan issue, as both parties have been guilty of hiding allocations in the budget which do not serve the general interest of the people, but rather serve as political pull for pressure groups.

"Silona Bonewald is leading the project, and having known her and worked with her on various projects for a couple of years now, I am confident that big things are likely to happen. The right cause, the right people, the right time. So I'm signed up."

Bonewald is a former gaming programmer who decided that technical experts should get more involved in government. As part of that effort, she began codeathons at which members of the nonprofit community worked along the involved programmers. The resulting programs help nonprofits know more about what legislators do.

It's not yet clear where the money for the project will come from. Willingham, who is also involved with the Kettering Foundation and is a board member for the National Issues Forums Institute, told us, "Any place we can get it! The LBJ Library is hosting the event. Many individuals (most notably Silona Bonewald) have donated countless hours. We are essentially following the philosophy, 'Leap and the net will appear.' Of course, we'd be happy to provide an address where people can send checks!"

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