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Open data hope and change?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 12, 2013
Obama makes open data a must for US government agencies to boost digital government and private sector developers.

US President Barack Obama has issued an executive order requiring government data be made open and machine-readable to fuel innovation and economic growth.

In his executive order, Obama says:

"Government information shall be managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable.

"In making this the new default state, executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall ensure that they safeguard  individual privacy, confidentiality, and national security."

The order gives Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park 30 days to publish an open online repository of tools and best practices  to help government agencies integrate open data standards into their systems. Within 90 days of the issuance of the policy, it will be integrated into the Office of Management and Budget's rules governing the way agencies purchase IT systems and services.

All of this has been a long time coming. Former US government CIO Vivek Kundra was pushing for just such a Presidential mandate back in the first Obama term in office on the back of the Open Government Directive introduced four years ago.

Some early steps were taken with the launch in 2009 of which obliged agencies to provide at least three "high-value data sets" through the portal. But these data sets came in a variety of competing formats and typically in the form of static dumps that weren't much use to man nor beast.

Following Kundra's departure to the private sector bosom of the Open Data cause was picked up by his successor Steven Van Roekel, backed up by Jeanne Holm in the specially created role of evangelist.

There were clear statements of intent on the part of the administration, such as last year's order to create public APIs that could be used by government and private developers to tap into data and make specific “applicable Government information open and machine-readable by default".

Carrots, sticks, business as usual 

But the drive to openness didn't necessarily find favor with the more conservative Federal CIO community.

To date, there's not been much visible enthusiasm for the cause, hence the need for the Obama executive order. As with Cloud First, a bit of stick is being brought into play due to seeming lack of appetite for the carrots being dangled.

The US is playing catch-up here with a number of other governments around the globe, as seen, for example, in the open data agenda of the UK government.

That said, there are obvious differences in approach. For example, the UK government has to date approached open data without feeling the need for major legislative change - although that may yet change of course.

In the US, attention has so far focused on how tech entrepreneurs and developers can use government data to fuel private sector innovation.

Obama himself cites the example of weather apps which use government data and how opening up the Global Positioning System (GPS) to the public has led to a rash of new offerings, from dashboard navigation systems to Foursquare.

He says:

"Openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth. As one vital benefit of open government, making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans' lives and contributes significantly to job creation.

"One of the things we’re doing to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery is to make vast amounts of America’s data open and easy to access for the first time in history. And talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with it…we’re making it easier for people to find the data and use it, so that entrepreneurs can build products and services we haven’t even imagined yet."

Here the US entrepreneurial culture may succeed where other nations have fallen short. In the UK, for example, there were similar ambitions when The Public Data Corporation was announced in 2011 to bring together Government bodies and data into one organisation and provide:

an unprecedented level of easily accessible public information and drive further efficiency in the delivery of public services. Supporting the Government’s growth agenda, it will open up opportunities for innovative developers, businesses and members of the public to generate social and economic growth through the use of data.

It closed a year later.

Something more

There's more to all this than meets the eye, reckons Andrea Di Maio, Gartner Distinguished Analyst who argues:

While its packaging and external focus is mostly about open public data, and in this respects it further develops policies that we have seen a few years ago, its most disruptive implication is that the concept of 'open by default' [applies] to any data. It would have been beneficial to make a clear distinction between 'open data' and 'open public data', but I understand that the constituencies that push for transparency and openness would not welcome the distinction, assuming that this would give the government the ability to decide at leisure where to share and where to hide data.

Di Maio also notes that the Obama mandate keeps the status quo and doesn't mount any threatening challenge to those recalcitrant CIOs in the Federal government:

The implementation section puts the CIO at the very center of this change, without calling – at least explicitly – for any new role (such as Chief Data Officer), and stresses that cost savings are expected and potential upfront investments should be considered in the context of their future benefits and be funded through the agency’s capital planning and budget processes. Which is to say that openness is not a nice to have, for which additional financial support should be expected, but is at the core of how agencies should operate to be more effective and efficient.

So will results be seen from this mandate? In his analysis, Di Maio suggests:

As the policy gets implemented, the balance and collaboration between the CTO Todd Park – who will most likely continue pursuing the external impact of open public data – and the CIO Steve VanRoekel – who chairs the CIO Council and will be mostly concerned with the internal use of information – will be crucial to make sure that openness by default becomes the new mantra.

More crucially, to make this work there will need to be significant changes to systems - and at a time of sequestration across the US federal sector it's open to question just how much 'wiggle room' that will leave budget-constrained agencies.

But the burden is now on federal agencies to explain why they haven’t released a data set - and that pressure can only be a good thing.

(Obama Hope poster by Shepard Fairey)

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