Open Government Data Ramps Up

Published: May 22, 2013

Acquisition ReformBig DataDigital GovernmentInnovationOMBPolicy and Legislation

This month’s executive order and administrative policy on open data come four years after the launch of and an order tasking agencies to provide at least three “high-value datasets.” The hype is already building around the impact of the next phase of open government data.

Following the executive order issued on May 9, 2013, Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued an Open Data Policy establishing guidance for agencies to release data in “open, machine-readable formats.” (Even the policy itself is open.)
Over the next three months, agencies are expected to incorporate this new policy into performance goals. A six month timeline is set for agencies to update policies and create public listing of available datasets. Within 30 days of the policy release, federal chief information officer Steven VanRoekel and federal chief technology officer Todd Park were tasked with publishing “an open online repository of tools and best practices.” Not long after the policy announcement, OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched Project Open Data, including implementation guidance, tools, resources, and case studies.  Within 90 days, OMB will integrated the policy into governance for purchasing of agency IT systems and services.
The Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich responded with enthusiasm to the release of more government data, but he noted that delivery of this data is supposed to be done without any additional spending. Agencies are also supposed to take the “mosaic effect,” piecemeal information combined to pose a risk, into consideration with the information they make public. So, before disclosing information, other publicly available data (in any medium, from any source) could be combined to identify an individual or pose another security concern. This raises question about what datasets agencies will release. As Wonderlich noted, “Concerns like cost, privacy, and security will be used to justify non-disclosure (as they often are), and will be used to try to justify keeping even a description of many datasets private.” This suggestion reiterates that the barriers to delivering high value datasets are not technical ones.
Last May, with the Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Serve the American People, agencies were directed to create public application programming interfaces (API) the could be leveraged by government and private developers. And, on Thursday, May 23, 2013, government officials will release the final set of almost 300 APIs that will enable users to stream information from agencies to computers, websites and mobile applications. Officials will continue adding API’s to the list after the launch. It’s hoped that this API catalog will enable private companies and non-profits to leveraging government data, as with Global Positioning System data. In remarks delivered in Austin, Texas on May 10, 2013, President Obama explained that greater access to government information will “fuel more private sector innovation and discovery,” yield entrepreneurial opportunities, enable startups, and promote economic growth. It also has the potential to improve the solutions available to government organizations.
The increasing use of the phrase “treasure trove of data” in referring to the measure of information within the government calls to mind another expression about the relative nature of “treasure.”  While developers will put data to work, the value it returns will rely patly on the viewpoint. For the most part, open government data has been outward facing, related to products and activities of agency mission areas.  Inward looking information, related to management and decision making, comes sparingly by comparison.  So, it's unlikely that increased access to data will translate into an increased and entirely new degree of government transparency.
Government contractors able expand and improve current products and services stand to benefit from the move toward open data. Since, open and machine readable data will be part of governance for federal IT purchases going forward, products and services that currently meet those requirements will be well positioned.