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Data transparency takes center stage

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen evidence of data transparency working its way into the national conversation.  Let’s examine three events and then consider the ramifications of this sea change.

GMO food labeling law

On May 9, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed first GMO food labeling law, which requires food manufacturers to label food that contains genetically modified organisms.   While Vermont is expected to be challenged in court over this legislation, many other states are considering similar legislation. 

In my opinion, this is no different than country of origin labeling or calling out added sugars in labels as the FDA is proposing.  In general, the more detail and more fidelity in a label – the better the label.  Consumers are demanding more information to make better decisions and labels are the proverbial “tip of the spear.”

But labels have limited space for information, so one way to expand the amount of available information would be linking a label to a virtual world via a QR code.  A QR or Quick Response code is a two-dimensional barcode with an encoded website address that can be read with a smartphone camera and app.  Linking the physical label to a website allows the manufacturer to post an infinite amount of additional data on the chemicals, production processes, safety standards and handling of the products.  This would provide a robust “chain of responsibility” for every product we are considering purchasing.

QR codes for fish

The Washington, D.C.- area Black Restaurant Group put QR codes on the cases and menus for the fish it sells so that customers would know where the fish came from, and how and when it was caught.  The codes themselves were free and easy to create; however, public interest in the codes has dropped off. Jonathan Pearlman, vice president and director of operations for Congressional Seafood, said that the problem could be that “QR codes are ugly” for upscale dining patrons.  And besides the aesthetic issues, not all consumers have the scanning app to read QR codes.  Even so, the idea of connecting the physical and virtual worlds is sound and will gain popularity as people become more familiar with its benefits.

The DATA Act

On May 9, President Obama signed into law the nation’s first open data law.  The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act requires federal agencies to publish their spending data in a standard, machine-readable format that the public can access through USASpending.gov.  This legislation was spearheaded by the Data Transparency Coalition and its three main legislative sponsors – Rep. Darrell Issa, Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Rob Portman. 

The bipartisan legislation first tasks the Treasury secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget to develop data standards for financial data.  Second, it requires that agencies post that standardized data online for all funds expended on a quarterly basis in a searchable, downloadable format.  Third, it sets up a pilot program to test the implementation.  Finally, it tasks the inspector general of each federal agency and the comptroller general to regularly assess the completeness and quality of data submitted in compliance with the law.  Bravo to all the people involved, especially Hudson Hollister, the executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, for making financial transparency a reality!

While structured data, metadata and data standards are loaded with technical jargon, geeky undertones and fine-grained minutia, it is clear that the public is catching on to the benefits that data transparency brings to them.  The Obama administration has led the way in open data with sites like data.gov, recovery.gov and USASpending.gov.  But introducing a concept is a far cry from public adoption of that concept.  The events of the last month show us that the public is catching on, and the world of open data, government transparency and citizen activism will never be the same!

Michael C. Daconta (mdaconta@incadencecorp.com or @mdaconta) is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

Posted by Michael C. Daconta on May 21, 2014 at 12:48 PM


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