The combination of social media and transparency in federal spending adds up to boatloads of data. But what impact do these forces have on federal policy? Perhaps more to the point: Is policy driving change, or is change driving policy?

Social media experts John Crupi, chief technology officer for JackBe, and Gov20LA founder Alan Silberberg joined host Eric Kavanagh on the latest episode of Federal Spending — an online radio broadcast designed to follow the money, not the politics — to discuss how social media and the push for transparency are shaping government policy and process. is one of many federal websites designed to make federal spending more transparent, by showing exactly how and where Recovery Act dollars are spent. Crupi said his company was sub-contracted by Smartronix to develop an application that not only connects to disparate data sources, but allows users and developers to interact with the data.
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Prior to JackBe’s involvement, the site was essentially a static report, said Crupi. “You didn’t have a way to get at the data itself,” he said. “You could download it, but that’s a tough nut to crack for most people.” now enables extensive searches and data mashups, with visualization and geospatial capabilities. Through the developer pages on the site, users can create applications and make share tags, all from one data source, in real-time.

“It’s a sea of change between the old way of thinking about reports and the new way of absorbing information,” said Crupi. “That’s the ultimate transparency: the data is coming out exactly how it was put in.”

Another realm of “Big Data” in the federal space comes from social media sites like Twitter.

Jump on Twitter and you can see that many federal, state and local agencies are indeed employing social media. The White House has over 2.6 million followers, which pales in comparison to Twitter phenom Lady Gaga, who sports more than 18 million “little monsters.”

Crupi said outlets like Twitter can give government agencies immediate insight because people tend to report events as soon as they happen.

“It’s not just looking at the information, but associating it with other information you’re monitoring,” said Crupi. “It’s a powerful look into what’s happening with the crowd.”

Alan Silberberg founded Gov20LA in an effort to bring together leading minds in the government’s social media arena. This annual live event discusses how advances in technology tools – social media, mobile technology and cloud computing – are driving change in the government. “They’re using these tools to say, ‘We’re human, we’re trying to work with you, we’re not just some government building,'” said Silberberg.

Although he said that at the heart of the matter, free and open data is the most important thing, Silberberg stressed the value of understanding social media from a tactical and strategic perspective.

“The key is being able to take disparate data pieces, which allows entrepreneurs to take a new data set and create data as a service or a new application.” He said much of the strategy is around using social media to replicate how people used to receive information, i.e., paper mail.

Amidst all this social network collaboration, however, is the need for standards, in terms of both data management and policy. Crupi said that unless standards like REST or XML are in place, data is practically meaningless. Software like JackBe can put those standards underneath a service layer, ultimately turning data into a web service so people can get to it easily.

At the policy level, things get a little tricky. Even with the huge drive for open records, certain information is still classified, making it difficult for agencies to actually accomplish what transparency legislature wants them to do. HIPPA, for example, disallows the sharing of patient information in many scenarios, even to other medical facilities, which hampers collaboration.

Crupi explained the government’s challenge at the onset of transparency. He said that getting the information out there was the first step, but mounting pressure to open up the data created a lot of confusion around what that really meant.

“All of a sudden, if that information gets out of your hands and people augment it with erroneous information, who’s responsible and how do you control that?” asked Crupi. “You can’t have control and openness at the same time.”

The culprit is fear, according to Silberberg. He said there are a lot of people who want to embrace new technologies but some who just don’t understand it. “They’re scared of it,” he said. “I’ve seen a big dichotomy between people who want change and people who don’t, and it’s caused by fear of change and fear of losing jobs.”

Adding some perspective to close the show, Federal Spending’s Washington, D.C. reporter, Anthony Sheehan, recalled his days at the US Department of Energy, and noted that transparency was not always a desired goal. With respect to the somewhat contradictory calls for transparency on one hand, via various federal policies, and opacity a la HIPAA, Sheehan quipped: “How many of us want to drool over the medical records of some old guy?”

Listen to the show.
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This Federal Spending show is produced by Inside Analysis in collaboration with Breaking Gov. Please share your thoughts on Twitter with #FedSpend. Federal Spending is an apolitical program designed to follow the money, not the politics or personalities. We broadcast Thursdays at Noon ET for one hour. Guests may stream the audio live without registering.

Contact Info:

Host: Eric Kavanagh, [email protected] – 512.426.7725
Producer: Rebecca Jozwiak, [email protected] – 817.320.3495