Track Those Tax Dollars In An 'Augmented Reality' Want to know where those stimulus dollars were spent? Consider turning your smart phone into a government watchdog — then all you'll have to do is take it for a walk.
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Track Those Tax Dollars In An 'Augmented Reality'

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Track Those Tax Dollars In An 'Augmented Reality'

Track Those Tax Dollars In An 'Augmented Reality'

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GUY RAZ, host:

In computer labs, programmers have developed a technology that will create what they call Augmented Reality. And what it does is allow someone with, say, an iPhone to point the camera somewhere, anywhere, and get a view of what's happening around them with a stream of real-time information.

Here in Washington, D.C., The Sunlight Foundation, a group dedicated to open government, is using a program that tracks where stimulus money is being spent.

Clay Johnson, the head of technology, agreed to take me down to K Street here in Washington, where some of the biggest lobby groups are based, and he came armed with his iPhone.

Mr. CLAY JOHNSON (Head of Technology, The Sunlight Foundation): We took the data from that's been released so far.

RAZ: The government Web site that shows how the stimulus money is being used.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. And now, you can point your iPhone or Android device at the street and see where the money is being spent.

RAZ: We're seeing a picture because your camera is on�

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

RAZ: �and I'm seeing a picture of the street, K Street, and a bunch of these big, blue dots on the screen. What are those blue dots?

Mr. JOHNSON: The size of the dot is based on the amount of money that was spent, so bigger dots equals more money. And we can look at these dots, and underneath it it says how much is being spent and to whom. So here's Young and Rubicam Inc., $3 million.

What's interesting is if we point it over towards the White House, about point eight miles down the road, there's the D.C. Office for the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety. That's a half a million dollars.

RAZ: Okay. So let me see if I have this right. You can walk down the street of this city or any city in the country, and take your iPhone out with this program, point it in any direction, these bubbles will come up on your screen, and you can click on one of those bubbles or touch one of those bubbles, and it will tell you how much money they have received from the federal government.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. And it's just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, imagine if you can point it at a fire hydrant or a stop light and it tells you how much money the government spent on that. All of a sudden, people can start relating to paying their taxes in an entirely different way.

RAZ: Couldn't somebody just sit at their desk and find out all this information without having to walk around the city and, you know, point their iPhone all over the place with, you know, having people look at them like they're nuts?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, absolutely. But what this provides to an individual is context. It provides to them the ability to see what's happening, to see what's around them. And I think, again, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but to provide them an association, a real association. Seeing it on a map is one thing, seeing it in front of you is something different altogether.

RAZ: How does it work? I mean, does it sort work via GPS, figures out where you are in relation to the building that you're pointing this at�

Mr. JOHNSON: It works via GPS and via a compass. So it needs to tell two things, right? One is where you're at, and two is which way you're facing. So it uses the GPS to pinpoint where you're at, and then the compass to say which way you're facing.

And then basically, all you're doing is taking points right now and plotting them on a map. The future is then when you begin to recognize the objects around you, not based on their coordinates, but on their shape, their size, their altitude.

RAZ: So in theory, in the next couple of years, somebody could develop a program that will allow you to point your iPhone at, say, a face of a person walking down a street, it will recognize that person's face and, say, give you their Facebook profile or something.

Mr. JOHNSON: Sure. Instead of exchanging business cards with you, I can hold my iPhone up to you and press a button and get your contact information, if you allowed me to.

RAZ: That's pretty scary.

Mr. JOHNSON: I should hope that technology developers are responsible and basically allow people to opt in or opt out of that.

RAZ: But in the wrong hands, could this technology eventually be dangerous?

Mr. JOHNSON: In the wrong hands, Facebook, Craigslist, eBay,, all technology in the wrong hands could be dangerous.

RAZ: Clay Johnson is the technology director for The Sunlight Foundation here in Washington, D.C.

Clay Johnson, thanks so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

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