Just How 'Transparent' Is the Obama White House? Scientists Try to Help

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The data can be useful in other, perhaps more substantial ways; for instance, to determine whether high cigarette taxes actually discourage smoking. Hendler's answer: "It's sort of true, but there are a lot of other things at work there."

The data, using his mashup technique, show that New Jersey has the highest cigarette taxes and the highest prices per pack, but Utah has the lowest smoking rate. RPI researchers decided that taxes have an effect, but other factors loom larger, such as local regulations mandating smoke-free environments. Utah may be an unusual case, with a large number of non-smoking Mormons.

More of RPI's mashups, and the results, can be found on a website it has set up; click here to take a look.

What does all this tell us about the administration's efforts to be open? Perhaps that's a question for you.

Hendler says the Obama White House is certainly putting a lot of data out there, but "data is most useful when you have something to compare it to."

That's what he and his colleagues say they are trying to add.

"The longer-term goal," he said, "is to turn data into a discussion between government and its citizens."

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