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Wrangling the Octopus

June 29, 2011

We’ve written before about the U.S. federal government as an information-generating “machine.” That metaphor captures not only the complexity and immensity of the bureaucratic process, but also its impersonality, the seemingly mechanized way it cranks out data.

Photo by merecO. Some rights reserved.

But there’s at least one fundamental characteristic of the government as information-generating engine that the machine image does not convey quite so well: the extensiveness of its reach. The logorrhea issuing forth from Washington affects nearly every business, organization, and individual in the United States (not to mention many beyond its borders).  Perhaps a more apt metaphor is the one suggested over a hundred years ago by the novelist Frank Norris, who imagined “the system” as a monstrous octopus, tentacles outstretched.  (Not to be confused, by the way, with this octopus.)

Now that’s a rather sinister image – but hey, at least this octopus lives not in shadows but in broad daylight. Yes, friends, government information is out in the open, in the public domain.  Indeed, it’s more public than ever in the age of the worldwide web. Government agencies have free websites where anyone, professionals and non-professionals alike, can look up whatever they need. Even the President has recently reaffirmed his dedication to transparency and open government.   

Except that the picture isn’t nearly this simple.  Not even close.  Take any topic you can think of that may be subject to government oversight.  To take an example out of thin air – how about the increasingly controversial issue of credit cards for college students. Now see what you can find out by going straight to the agency websites you think might be relevant. Go ahead. We’ll give you a minute.

Running into walls? Okay, try a Google search. Now you’re at the other extreme.  Even if you limit your search to .gov websites, there’s still way too much, with no way of filtering out the noise or getting a handle on what you’re seeing. In either scenario, you’re careening down a rabbit hole. The problem is that the information you need is idiosyncratically organized and incredibly compartmentalized. It’s fragmented, scattered all over the federal regulatory landscape.  If you work hard enough, you can locate the discrete silos that house the information you’re after.  But even then you’re forced to approach them one by one — without any assurance that you’re knocking on the right door.  What relevant data might you be missing?

It was our awareness of this conundrum that prompted us at Knowledge Mosaic to turn our attention toward mapping the federal regulatory landscape.  We’d been doing something comparable for years with Securities Mosaic, but in a much narrower sphere.  At least SEC data, complex and recondite though it may be, is all available (if not easily accessible) in one place, on www.sec.gov.  To wrangle the entire octopus is quite another endeavor.  But the fact that it’s difficult to do is precisely why it’s valuable and important.

Our ultimate goal is to transform the labyrinth of government information into knowledge.  A single comprehensive license to our website provides unlimited access to all points along the bureaucratic conveyor belt: from legislation in the halls of Congress, to codification in federal law, to agency rulemaking, to compliance and disclosure by public companies and others, and finally to enforcement.  We lay bare an incomparably broad scope of primary materials, including the complete US Code and CFR; current and recent bills in Congress; and a vast array of the guidance, rule-making, reports, enforcement releases, and other materials released on a daily basis by over two dozen major federal agencies.

You can search all these silos at once. Take our example search above and try it out on our Laws, Rules, and Agency Materials search page. (More on that page here.)  With the text string “college student” “credit card,” you’ll find over 100 results from 11 different agencies, not to mention relevant laws and regulation.  Slice and dice your results by agency or date.  Refine your results and even your search terms as you go, perhaps drilling down into a particular agency to explore results by dataset category.  The possibilities are endless.

This way of searching is both efficient and potentially abundant.  Indeed, we use the phrase “abundant search” to describe the serendipitous experience of finding meaningful information on your topic in a source you never would have anticipated.  Consider the octopus wrangled.

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