Traversing Digital Babel

Traversing Digital Babel: Information, E-Government, and Exchange

Alon Peled
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Traversing Digital Babel
    Book Description:

    The computer systems of government agencies are notoriously complex. New technologies are piled on older technologies, creating layers that call to mind an archaeological dig. Obsolete programming languages and closed mainframe designs offer barriers to integration with other agency systems. Worldwide, these unwieldy systems waste billions of dollars, keep citizens from receiving services, and even -- as seen in interoperability failures on 9/11 and during Hurricane Katrina -- cost lives. In this book, Alon Peled offers a groundbreaking approach for enabling information sharing among public sector agencies: using selective incentives to "nudge" agencies to exchange information assets. Peled proposes the establishment of a Public Sector Information Exchange (PSIE), through which agencies would trade information. After describing public sector information sharing failures and the advantages of incentivized sharing, Peled examines the U.S. Open Data program, and the gap between its rhetoric and results. He offers examples of creative public sector information sharing in the United States, Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Iceland. Peled argues that information is a contested commodity, and draws lessons from the trade histories of other contested commodities -- including cadavers for anatomical dissection in nineteenth-century Britain. He explains how agencies can exchange information as a contested commodity through a PSIE program tailored to an individual country's needs, and he describes the legal, economic, and technical foundations of such a program. Touching on issues from data ownership to freedom of information, Peled offers pragmatic advice to politicians, bureaucrats, technologists, and citizens for revitalizing critical information flows.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31986-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Alon Peled
  4. Series Editor’s Introduction
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Sandra Braman

    It may seem on the surface as if the first two books in the Information Policy Series are as far apart from each other as possible. Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova’sVirtual Economies, about how to design such economies, lies on the governance side of the domain marked by the series description and will have long-term effects on governmentality. Alon Peled’sTraversing Digital Babel, with its proposal for a market-based solution to inter-agency information flow problems, is on the government side and addresses a classical information policy issue.

    Both books, though, are taking part in the same conversation about macro-level...

  5. Introduction: The Archaeological and Electronic Mountains
    (pp. 1-12)

    Like an archeologicaltel(an ancient man-made mountain that contains multiple civilizations buried one beneath the other), public sector agencies stack computer technologies on top of older technologies, creating a man-made electronic mountain. The cost of connecting these computer systems is exorbitant. They consist of arcane programming languages and closed mainframe designs and lack interfaces to interact with other systems.

    The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers a prime example of an electronic mountain. Since the 1954 overhaul of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, Congress has passed 238 additional tax laws. Because tax laws are not retroactive, IRS programmers have...

  6. 1 The Information Sharing Crisis that Does Not Go Away
    (pp. 13-38)

    This chapter introduces five infamous public information sharing failures. Next, it argues that these failures are troubling because of the central role that information plays in redefining the character and functions of the public sector in the modern state. This discussion highlights agencies as Big Data owners whose appetite for data surpasses even that of private sector corporations such as Google. However, agencies fail more frequently than private sector corporations to share their datasets. The chapter provides several reasons for these frequent failures, and summarizes the primary damage stemming from public information sharing failure.

    On January 28, 1986, 73 seconds...

  7. 2 Coerce, Consent, and Coax: Existing Information Sharing Approaches
    (pp. 39-56)

    The chapter defines the key concepts of “data,” “information,” and “knowledge.” It suggests that we must enable agencies to discover and acquire access to data that other agencies possess before we can discuss the acquisition of knowledge. Next, the chapter proposes that legislatures employ three approaches to encourage agencies to improve information sharing: “coerce,” “consent,” and “coax.” Theoretical arguments and case study analysis demonstrate that these three approaches are unsuccessful. Finally, the chapter introduces the book’s novel approach to information sharing that emphasizes incentives and exchange.

    Data is a set of discrete objective facts that from a record. Individual data...

  8. 3 Why Open Data Finds Agencies’ Doors Closed
    (pp. 57-74)

    The chapter defines the open data (OD) concept and narrates the historical evolution and vision of OD programs. It explains why critics predicted that agencies would not cooperate with these programs. Next, the chapter discusses why agencies’ OD compliance was poorly measured, then describes the first empirical, rigorous study of the pioneering U.S. federal OD program (2010–2012). The study reveals that while agencies claimed to comply with OD, they did very little to justify this claim. Studies of non-U.S. OD programs reinforce this conclusion. The chapter concludes with a discussion of agencies’ resistance to fully cooperating with OD programs....

  9. 4 How Data Trade Opens Agencies’ Closed Doors
    (pp. 75-104)

    Keenly aware of the value of their data, American agencies were trading data with each other before the onset of the Internet age (GAO 1991). However, agencies have an ambivalent attitude toward their datasets. On the one hand, they are aware of the economic value of their data and know how to increase this value by mining data with BI tools and linking it to external datasets. On the other hand, agencies have no incentives to utilize their datasets beyond supporting their chartered missions. Current U.S. interagency data exchange practices reflect this debilitating lack of efficacy: the practices are innovative...

  10. 5 Public Sector Data as a Contested Commodity
    (pp. 105-124)

    This chapter first defines this study’s key economic concepts. These definitions highlight the challenge of exchanging a good or service whose insertion into the exchange is ethically contested by the public: a contested commodity. The chapter examines the histories of exchanging thirty ethically contested commodities, to understand which public sector data types are good candidates for incentives-driven exchange. These histories also provide insight into desired conditions to erect an agency data-exchange arena. The gruesome history of commoditizing cadavers for anatomical dissections in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century deepens the understanding of the relationships among these conditions. The...

  11. 6 The Public Sector Information Exchange (PSIE)
    (pp. 125-160)

    The chapter first defines the Public Sector Information Exchange (PSIE) concept by drawing on the strengths of the three existing information sharing approaches (coerce, consent, and coax—see chapter 2). Next, the chapter discusses how different countries could build different PSIE programs suited to their particular needs and national culture. An existing Australian supply-chain model (in the policing domain) and a hypothetical American exchange model (in the environmental domain) are described to support this discussion. The American PSIE model is contrasted with existing information sharing technologies to demonstrate the advantage of the incentives-driven PSIE approach over primarily technological solutions to...

  12. 7 Four PSIE Challenges
    (pp. 161-178)

    Thus far, this book has emphasized information as a commodity. But information is primarily a constitutive force in society that shapes our social and material reality including guiding, controlling, and rearranging all economic activity. As a constitutive force, information has constitutional roles and an empirical impact on society (Braman 2006, 19). We must consider tensions and trade-offs between the idea of information as a commodity and the concept of information as a constitutive force. Four challenges to PSIE are addressed in this chapter: (1) the democracy challenge, (2) the privacy challenge, (3) the data ownership and intellectual property (IP) challenge,...

  13. 8 A Political Strategy to Promote PSIE
    (pp. 179-192)

    In 1985, Stuart Brand suggested that a key trade-off of the coming information age would be the balance between “information wanting to be free” and “information wanting to be expensive” (Brand and Herron 1985 ). Brand explained that information wants to be free because the cost of providing it is getting lower. At the same time, information wants to be expensive because it is so valuable.

    Today, agencies face the same dilemma: how to strike a balance between the “free” and “expensive” features of their information assets. Agencies can free information to reinvigorate democracy and boost the economy. At the...

  14. Appendix: Abbreviations
    (pp. 193-198)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 199-200)
  16. References
    (pp. 201-248)
  17. Index
    (pp. 249-279)