October 25, 2010 - 11:23 am

Imagine you were a reporter and wanted to compare budgets for each of the 50 states.  Or, you wanted to compare the official schedules of governors in 20 states?  Dan Oblinger, Program Manager at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) suggests that if there were a single cloud for state and local governments, possibly supported by the federal government, the release of data to reporters and the rest of the public could be modernized and streamlined. 
Journalists say now that when they ask for government records, often they get print outs of electronic documents with black marker used to redact certain sections.  These releases can be hundreds of pages long, and completely unsearchable electronically. This is taking place in a context where newspapers are closing and reporters are being laid off.  The number of employed investigative reporters is declining and therefore there are fewer people to keep government at all levels - national, state, local - accountable to the public.
For example, suppose all states kept their birth, marriage, and death certificates and their court and police records on this single cloud.  Whatever format any single state used for its data, the cloud could provide the support to convert it into other useful formats (I understand now that this kind of conversion perhaps is often too costly for any single locality or state to support).  For the public who wanted to use these data, they could access it in a format useful to them, not just in the format the state/local government uses.
Inside the cloud, each state could specify what level of privacy/security is necessary for each piece of data, adjustable depending on the user's level of rights.  Thus, the decision to redact is made once, and preserved electronically.  For example, records of a policy discussion in 2012 can be accessed by only by people in the legislature for 2 years, and by the general public after that.  In 2012, the records can be entered into the cloud, with instructions to restrict access until 2014, when the cloud allows everyone access.

For individual state/local officials, there would then be no need for every FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to print out the whole record and physically redact with a black Sharpie; instead you just direct the reporter/citizen to the cloud for what was done before.  For the reporter/citizen they can access the data in a modern (i.e. digital) format which is amenable to more sophisticated tools for search and analysis.
With the cloud, can you see clearly now? With the redesign of FCC.gov hosted in the cloud, the commission is eager to engage with other federal, state, and local bodies working on making cloud environments work for them. Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.