by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
All the more welcome, then, are projects like openthebooks.com, a new drive that uses big data to make the work of city, state and federal government transparent. Open the Books was founded in Illinois (one of the porkiest states in the union) by Adam Andrzejewski, a big-data talent. Andrzejewski and his team have amassed the computing power to capture a great share of the federal checkbook’s vendor spending in the U.S., as well as more than 48 states’ checkbook payments to vendors.
Open the Books can also trace public salaries, pensions and campaign donations. Donors and subsidy recipients often turn out to be the same. Open the Books created an app that shows it all: the beauty school that receives more than 100 times in grants and student loans what it charges in tuition, or the $1.67 million in federally guaranteed loans and hundreds of thousands in subsidies and direct payments received by the brother of a former Illinois director of agriculture.
Open the Books is not alone. Computing power has made such work cheap and possible for any graduate student to tackle. Another team, the Environmental Working Group, has done particularly gratifying work on the tens of billions of dollars in farm subsidies that were handed out between 1995 and 2012. It turns out that in California between 1995 and 2003 the average payment was 29 times the size of that to farmers in other states. The Washington Post offered up a list of components in a recent agriculture bill, noting that the bill authorized funds for the growth of “industrial hemp”–Cannabis sativa L.–for research purposes by colleges and universities.
A spotlight makes officials squirm. The very existence of data-heavy watchdogs deters.