Fresher data would improve Data.gov, watchdog groups say

Open government advocates say Web site also has problems with data formats, usability

The Data.gov Web site designed to make federal government data more transparent would be more effective if it offered fresher data, used more accessible data formats and offered better ways to search and combine data, according to a group of open government advocates.

Only 16 of the 58 datasets posted to Data.gov to date were previously unavailable online. “This leaves the impression that agencies posted easily available data, the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” advocates wrote to federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra on Feb. 3.

Leaders of OMBWatch, the Project on Government Oversight, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other open government groups wrote to Kundra expressing concerns about Data.gov in complying with President Obama’s Open Government Directive. The groups released a copy of the letter Feb. 4.

Although the watchdogs praised the Data.gov effort, they recommended improvements. “The White House and its agencies deserve credit for taking this step in the right direction, but more work is needed,” the advocates wrote.

Under the Open Government Directive, federal agencies were asked to publish three high-value datasets on Data.gov. But many agencies simply repackaged previously available information rather than making available new data.

“We believe repackaging old information is of marginal value, yet that is what many agencies have done with their recent postings on Data.gov,” the advocates wrote. To improve things, the agencies should have to adhere to guidelines on what constitutes “high value” and should publish whether the data was previously available, and in what format. They also should consider creating data feeds that are regularly updated, they added.

Data formats on the site, which are primarily Extensible Markup Language (XML), also pose a problem to the general public, the advocates wrote. The goal should be to strike a balance between machine-readable formats for the coding community and use of interfaces to enable ease of access for the public. In some cases, the best thing would be to direct a user off-site to an existing online database with an easier interface.

Overall, the design and functions of Data.gov to date raise some questions about the usefulness of the site, the watchdogs said.

“While we agree there is value in aggregating government data in a single site, it is questionable how much the collocation of the currently posted information on Data.gov actually benefits the public," they wrote. "The site is not searchable by topic and does not provide any way to bring together data from different sources on similar topics." Organizing the data, with tagging or metadata, would provide added usability.

The advocacy groups also complained about glitches on the site, errors in the data and missing data. They also raised questions about how data is added, changed and removed from the site.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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