Open Government

Economic effects of open data policy still 'anecdotal'

VanRoekel at FOSE

Measuring the economic impact of the release of government data is so far not possible, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel told an audience at the FOSE conference. (FCW photo by Heather Kuldell)

A year after the launch of the government's digital strategy, there's no official tally of the economic activity generated by the release of government datasets for use in commercial applications.

"We have anecdotal examples, but nothing official yet," said federal CIO Steven VanRoekel in an invitation-only meeting with reporters at the FOSE conference on May 15. "It's an area where we have an opportunity to start to talk about this, because it's starting to tick up a bit, and the numbers are looking pretty good." (Related story: APIs help agencies say yes)

The Obama administration is banking on an explosion in the use of federal datasets for commercial and government applications alike. Last week's executive order and accompanying directive from the Office of Management and Budget tasks agencies with making open and machine readable data the new default setting for government information.

VanRoekel said that the merits of the open data standard don’t necessarily need to be justified by economic activity. "As a guy who stands looking inside government, my true test of this stuff is when you go to the last 20 minutes of a hackathon," -- an event that introduces developers to government datasets -- "and you see results...that blows the doors off a lot of solutions that you've seen inside government using proprietary systems," he said.

At the same time, VanRoekel cautioned against letting commercial demand for government information overtax government systems. "I don't think government as a massive API repository for access to live government data streams is necessary in every case," he said. The administration is planning to address these concerns in the next iteration of, which will give indications when an outside vendor is drawing down resources.

For example, he said, real estate site Zillow's traffic "could crush most federal agency's traffic. We have to look at options to manage around some of the resource constraints."

The executive order also spells out privacy concerns arising from the so-called "mosaic effect,' by which information from disparate datasets can be overlaid to decipher personally identifiable information. VanRoekel, however, said that nothing in the order or in any policy document allows the government to restrict the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act or other disclosure laws.

The origin of the mosaic restrictions comes from work of the Health and Human Services Department. Van Roekel explained that the privacy constraints come from HSS' discovery in a recent data release that information on Medicare payments, when combined with Census data, could in certain cases lead to the inadvertent release of health information about people living in low-population areas.

Federal agencies will "still follow FOIA to the letter," Van Roekel said. "Nothing about executive orders and policy changes law."

1105 Media, FCW's parent company, produces FOSE.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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