Can open data change the culture of government?

U.S. CTO Todd Park believes the government's Digital Government Strategy will create a 'treasure trove' of economic opportunity. One year in, that benefit is in short supply, but other gains are emerging.

CTO Todd Park

U.S. CTO Todd Park believes the government's Digital Government Strategy will create a 'treasure trove' of economic opportunity. One year in, that benefit is in short supply, but other gains are emerging. (File photo)

The public relations hook of the administration's open data push ties into its economic potential. Todd Park, the federal chief technology officer and one of the most enthusiastic evangelists for open data, claims that unlocking the global positioning system for commercial use helped generate $100 billion in economic value. At a recent conference, he told a luncheon audience that the government is "sitting on a treasure trove of economic opportunity with the data we hold."

It's been exactly one year since the release of the Digital Government Strategy that included open data provisions, and four years since the launch of the Data.gov portal run by the General Services Administration. Data.gov started with 47 datasets, and now there are about 400,000.

The effort has not yielded many chart-topping hits in terms of consumer-facing applications, however. A few companies, such as iTriage and Trulia, are creating jobs and revenue using government datasets as raw material, but the architects of the government policy say that so far they have only anecdotal evidence of its economic impact. That is not to say that there's no economic value to the open data policy, but it may not be the most notable near-term effect.

Under the radar, open data policy is helping to foster cooperation inside government, both intra-agency and inter-agency. Fully realized, the open data policy could help the government work more efficiently, and reduce duplication of efforts within and across agencies.

"Working in government for a long time, you can get very focused on what it is that you're needing to do," said Jeanne Holm, who leads the Data.gov effort at GSA. "The change I've seen, particularly over the last year or year-and-a-half, has been this lifting up of people who are involved in opening up data to realize the impact that they can have."

At the Census Bureau, the focus on open data helped the bureau to rethink the way it organized its entire online presence, said new media director Stephen Buckner. Before the digital strategy, the Census website was essentially keyed to the bureau's organizational chart, with divisions responsible for a few pages each. Users had to know the division of responsibilities within the Census in order to navigate to the data they wanted. "It was not a customer-centric approach," Buckner said.

The move to open data also helped Census win new customers inside government. For instance, Buckner says that the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not have access to detailed socioeconomic housing data. Now that information is available via the Census API, and FEMA is able to use it to identify high-risk areas in disaster planning.

And the Census is not alone in touting the powers of its API. On May 22, the Data.gov team published a comprehensive list of application programming interfaces that agencies are providing -- nearly 300 in all. Not every agency has embraced the open-and-sharing ethos, of course. The real advantages come from "the ability to look across all of those data sets and correlate information" about a specific topic, incident or individual, said Bethann Pepoli, the former deputy CIO for the state of Massachusetts who is currently business development manager of state and local government and K-12 education at the data-analytics firm Splunk.

"One of the difficulties that the federal government has is that the agencies are fairly siloed and it is difficult to share information and make those correlations," she said.

Seabourne CEO Mike Reich, who has worked with both the FCC and Commerce on data management projects, agreed. "For so long, this stuff was so siloed," he said. "The best way to get it was to call your buddy up and have him FedEx a bunch of envelopes of data to you."

And while some agencies are "still struggling with the basic technical requirements," Reich said, "the technology is there. It's really getting the people to see what's possible."

Open Data Deadlines

The administration has already launched project-open-data.github.io -- an online repository of tools and best practices that the executive order mandated by June 8. Other deadlines for open data use include:

By Aug. 7, a range of OMB officials, including the CIO, comptroller and administrator for federal procurement policy, must "identify and initiate implementation of measures" to bring open-data practices to federal acquisition and grant-making.

By that same date, the chief performance officer must establish a Cross-Agency Priority Goal to track implementation of the policy.

By Nov. 5, all agencies must report their progress against the open-data CAP goal.

President Obama's May 9 executive order on open data and the accompanying implementation guidance from OMB fills in the details about the kind of cultural shift that agencies need to make in order to make open data the default setting of government. Agencies are charged with making a detailed inventory of their data holdings – even data that is not going to be released because it is sensitive or contains personally identifiable information. CIOs must take open data requirements into account when acquiring new information systems or modernizing existing systems. Contracts with vendors for information-collection services will have to contain language spelling out open data requirements.

According to the president's timetable, by early August there should be a set of requirements in place for acquisition personnel to use to include open data in government grants and contracts. At the same time, agencies will be given clear metrics for measuring their compliance with open data policy.

Putting open data language in procurement vehicles could potentially transform the way open data policy is understood by those inside government and by contractors, Holm said. "I know it doesn't sound sexy, but that alone will make a huge difference, without necessarily increasing the cost to government."

Though there can be extra effort involved in complying with open data standards, from labeling to validation, but at the same time it can help reconnect government employees to their mission, said Holm. "When I show them an app, a light goes on for them," She said. "They're really enthusiastic that other people care about what they're doing, and that actually has been the biggest change. It's great when they know that their service is getting all the way to the citizen."

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