27 September, 2008

Financial transparency

As long as we're fixing the regulatory system, there's a technological fix that will do wonders for transparency:

Technological limits used to mean that any kind of data had to be laboriously culled and aggregated before being submitted to regulators. Now, innovations such as XML tags and data syndication in formats such as RSS (as a Huffington subscriber, you get the Post via an RSS feed) or KML (used for Google map mashups) make it simple for companies to automatically combine the data and release it, whether internally or to regulators -- and even to the public.

The District of Columbia, long plagued by corruption, began a transparency initiative under former Mayor Anthony Williams. It shifted into high gear under Mayor Adrian Fenty, and CTO Vivek Kundra. They now publish, on a real-time basis, more than 260 different data streams of statistics as varied as violent crime, building starts, and even requests to fill potholes. All of those statistics are available for anyone to analyze and interpret, and current uses range from tracking development around the new Nationals Park to showing crime reports on a Google Map.

Equally important, District agencies use the same data feeds internally to deploy their workforces more effectively, and break down barriers to cooperation between agencies.

If the same system was applied to banking, critical statistics could flow automatically to federal regulators, while also being available to the banks' own staff -- many of whom have never had real-time data access in the past. Combined with innovative web-based tools to turn obscure data into easy-to-understand visualizations, for the first time the workforce, as well as regulators, would have the kind of real-time information that's essential in today's global economy, whether to regulate businesses or to run them.

Furthermore, if the data were automatically "scrubbed" of identifiers and any kind of information that might be a legitimately competitive concern, it might also be possible to aggregate and publish the data externally, so that the general public, media, and scholars could also subscribe to, analyze, and scrutinize the information on a real-time basis. The Patent Office is experimenting with an analogous innovation, the Peer-to-Patent program, which allows anyone with relevant expertise to review a pending patent and submit commentary to the Patent Office.

You can't oversee a globalized economy with 20th century methods. And if something like this had been in place, external observers could have brought more pressure to bear on Congress and on regulators, avoiding some of the current disaster.

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