Generally, though, the conversation went something like this: Our mastery of data is (1) world-changingly powerful and (2) not something the public should worry about too much.
Obama didn’t first learn about the power of data on the campaign trail. One of his legislative accomplishments during his brief time in the Senate was a bill co-authored with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that called for the creation of an online federal spending database. At the time, they called it “a significant tool that will make it much easier to hold elected officials accountable for the way taxpayer money is spent.” (The result: USAspending.gov.) The transparency bill helped establish Obama’s bona fides as bipartisan as well as tech-savvy.
And this reputation carried over into the White House. Cass Sunstein, Obama’s first-term regulatory czar and now a law professor at Harvard, often said that regulations should be “evidence-based and data-driven.” Meanwhile, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, an assistant to the president, declared that “we are witnessing the emergence of a data-powered revolution in healthcare” in the lead-up to the latest Health Datapalooza, an annual conference showcasing innovations in the use of data by companies, academics and government agencies. Data in the hands of both patients and medical practitioners, Park argues, has the power to lower costs and improve healthcare.
That work is of a piece with the Obama administration’s release last month of a massive price list showing what more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals charge to treat 100 different conditions — a move inspired by Steve Brill’s Time magazine cover story this year on healthcare costs. The government collects that data in the course of administering Medicare and chose to release it to bolster public support for Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
Sometimes, too, data has been for Obama a way of routing around awkward confrontations. His Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been hammered by some advocates for, as they see it, failing to put the public’s interest in cheaper, faster and more widespread Internet access ahead of the demands of telecom companies such as Verizon and AT&T. The FCC has focused its energies on techniques such as a “broadband speed test” that asks people to gauge how well their Internet connection works, data that providers aren’t eager to release. A neat hack, maybe, but some advocates would rather the FCC focus on getting tougher with industry.
In his talks on new approaches to government regulations, Sunstein is fond of quoting the late legal scholar (and, like Sunstein, former University of Chicago law professor) Karl Llewellyn: “Technique without morals is a menace,” Llewellyn supposedly remarked, “but morals without technique is a mess.”
The enduring challenge of those words has reappeared in the NSA controversy. Are the agency’s techniques a menace? Obama says he is happy to have the conversation. “I think it’s a sign of maturity,” the president said recently in California. “Because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.” But he hasn’t been entirely helpful in getting the debate going. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he said with a slight smile that quickly turned downward. “That’s not what this program is about.”