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Huge and impenetrable government databases – technically public but inaccessible in practice – have long hidden critical health and safety information. Consumers and patients need emerging knowledge about product defects, drug side effects and service flaws to choose safe cars, cribs, doctors, medicines and much else. Government has long collected this kind of information from us: manufacturers, retailers, medical experts and consumers send in millions of stories every year about unexpected problems that cause deaths or injuries. But, despite efforts toward more open government, shoppers and patients often can’t get access to this developing knowledge to make smart choices.

Now software developers are filling the gap – making important clues about health and safety risks hidden in government-gathered information easily available to consumers – and hoping to make a profit, of course. Two examples to watch: AdverseEvents Inc. and Clarimed LLC are firms that translate dense data about unexpected drug side effects and medical device malfunctions into usable information for patients and doctors. Can such transparency save lives and improve product safety? The CEO of Clarimed told Melinda Beck of the Wall Street Journal : “The best way to drive quality improvements is to make things crystal clear and transparent as possible.”

Mary Graham, co-director — Transparency Policy Project

In November National Public Radio and the respected Center for Public Integrity teamed up on a series on toxic pollution featuring an interactive map so that people could search for local sources sorted by risk to human health.

Unfortunately  the series was based on data dinosaurs — so the map’s results are two to four years out of date. That’s not the reporters’ fault. It’s the latest government information available. Since 1988 when Congress first required annual reporting of toxic pollution, factory by factory, it has taken 18 months or so for the Environmental Protection Agency to process industry reporting and make public the results. And EPA’s overlay that models risk to human health is based on factories’ toxic releases in 2007 — and it cannot be used to determine real risks anyway, according to EPA’s website.

What families and businesses need and technology could now deliver is real time information – especially when there are spikes in dangerous toxic pollutants. But look for more data dinosaurs soon. The government has cancelled its most important annual compilation of data — The Statistical Abstract — and austerity is producing many other data casualties. But does it really make sense to take big chunks out of the factual foundation for public and private choices that took so long to build?

Mary Graham, co-director — Transparency Policy Project