GOVERNMENTS have learned a cheap new way to improve people’s lives. Here is the basic recipe:
Take data that you and I have already paid a government agency to collect, and post it online in a way that computer programmers can easily use. Then wait a few months. Voilà! The private sector gets busy, creating Web sites and smartphone apps that reformat the information in ways that are helpful to consumers, workers and companies.
Not surprisingly, San Francisco, with its proximity to Silicon Valley, has been a pioneer in these efforts. For some years, Bay Area transit systems had been tracking the locations of their trains and buses via onboard GPS. Then someone got the bright idea to post that information in real time. Thus the delightful app Routesy was born. Install it on a smartphone and the app can tell you that your bus is stuck in traffic and will be 10 minutes late — or it can help you realize that you are standing on the wrong street, dummy. It gives consumers a great new way to find out when and where the bus is coming, and all at minimal government expense.
Another example involves weather data produced by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The forecasts you find on the Weather Channel, or on the evening news or online, use the agency’s information. Again, the government produces and releases raw data, and the private sector transforms it into something useful for the public.
Several other departments in the Obama administration are looking to expand the use of such techniques. On data.gov, you will find huge amounts of downloadable data that had heretofore been inaccessible. As a sign of the importance that President Obama has attached to this approach, he put it on the government’s agenda on Jan. 21, 2009, his second day in office. (Disclosure: My book, “Nudge,” published in 2008, advocated this broad idea; Cass R. Sunstein, co-author of the book, is now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.)
Now the administration is pushing to use this concept as a tool for regulation, and as a method of avoiding more heavy-handed rule making. The idea is that making things more transparent can immediately turn consumers into better shoppers and make markets work better. One might think that such an initiative would receive nearly universal support — after all, who could be against openness and transparency? But it turns out that some people are.
Two cases are under discussion right now.
First, the Department of Transportation is considering a new rule requiring airlines to make all of their prices public and immediately available online. The postings would include both ticket prices and the fees for “extras” like baggage, movies, food and beverages. The data would then be accessible to travel Web sites, and thus to all shoppers.
The airlines would retain the right to decide how and where to sell their products and services. But many of them are insisting that they should be able to decide where and how to display these extra fees. The issue is likely to grow in importance as airlines expand their lists of possible extras, from seats with more legroom to business-class meals served in coach.
Electronic disclosure of all fees can make it much easier for consumers to figure out what a trip really costs, and thus make markets more efficient, without requiring new rules and regulations. (As someone who once bought two tickets on a discount airline from London to Dublin for the advertised price of £1 each, then ended up paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of bringing along two heavy suitcases, I acknowledge having a sore spot on this issue.)
Another initiative has been proposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2008, Congress overwhelmingly passed and President George W. Bush signed legislation mandating an online database of reported safety issues in products, at saferproducts.gov. The Web site ran for a few months in a “soft launch” and went into full operation on Friday.
But a majority in the House of Representatives passed an amendment last month that might have stopped this initiative in its tracks. The amendment, sponsored by Representative Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, would have prohibited the agency from spending any further money to start the site. One goal, of course, was to cut the budget, although proponents of the amendment also argue that the Web site might include information that is erroneous and damaging to the businesses that sell children’s products.
Yet several provisions in the final rules protect manufacturers from false or malicious statements. Consumers have to include identifying information and sign an affidavit testifying to the truth of their complaints. Furthermore, manufacturers will be able to see complaints before they are posted, and can then correct mistakes or add comments.
ALTHOUGH this amendment was passed in the name of deficit reduction, the requested money for the site is a puny $3 million a year. If we want to reduce the cost of government regulation, this is exactly the kind of effort we should be applauding and expanding.
Compared with the tiny costs, the benefits of this program could be enormous. Thirteen years ago, two of my dear friends experienced the nightmare that parents dread most. They were called at work by their child-care provider and told that their 18-month-old son had died in a crib accident. Imagine their anguish when they later learned that other children had died in this model of crib, and that still others had died in cribs with similar design. Yet there was no easy way for any parent or child-care provider to know that.
In a recent three-year span, some 265 children under the age of 5 died in accidents related to nursery products, the government has reported. If this program could reduce that number even slightly, the cost would seem amply justified.
Moving the government into the 21st century should be applauded. In a future column, I will explain how the release of some kinds of data can even help consumers better understand themselves.