Data.gov shows how not to do open government

Developers have tools available, but must use them smartly, panelists say

The effort to make data available through Data.gov is only a first step toward fulfilling the promise of the Open Government Initiative — and agencies have a long way to go. That was the message delivered by Dan Kasun, senior director of developer and platform evangelism at Microsoft's U.S. Public Sector, and Steve Drucker, president of Fig Leaf Software, in a panel discussion at this week's Open Government and Innovations conference.

The discussion, moderated by GCN Editor-in-Chief Wyatt Kash, was focused on tools to enable agencies to meet the challenges of the Open Government Initiative. But both Kasun and Drucker emphasized that merely making datasets available isn't enough to foster the long-term success of the effort.

“If we don't have tools for the ongoing sustainability of the data — which means supportability in terms of publishing of it, as well as rapid and useful consumption of it — [OGI] is going to die on the vine,” Kasun said.


Related: 10 flaws with the data on Data.gov


“As a baby step toward open government, putting your high-value datasets online is good,” Drucker said. “But if the user community can't consume the data, that's not really a contribution to open government.”

He said the datasets currently on Data.gov fail the “mom test.” If he pointed his mother to the site, she wouldn't be able to get anything useful, he said. For the data to be useful, it must be easy for the average person to use.

Drucker and Kasun said much of the data isn't even usable by developers. With much of it in static files online, “the barrier to entry [to developing applications based on the data] is very high because of the data conversion that has to be done,” Drucker said. Instead of developers facing a simple, half-day user interface development task, having to convert the data into a usable format extends the simplest application development projects to a week or more of developer time, he added.

Drucker likened Data.gov to what a large law firm might do to a smaller one in discovery in a lawsuit: bury developers and citizens with raw information. “Data.gov is too much information — it's not surgical," he said. "Right now, it's forcing people to download the whole dataset. And from the dataset, it's still hard to get to the data.”

He added that the efforts by agencies to extract data from where it resides into a static XML dataset were make-work. “With slightly more effort, they could have exposed the data where it lives through a Web service,” he said.

Both Kasun and Drucker mentioned a number of open-source, free and community-based tools that are available to help agencies do just that. Drucker said Adobe offers an open-government toolkit to build data portals on Adobe's ColdFusion Web application server. And Kasun noted that Microsoft offers free Open Government Data Initiative tools to create cloud-based applications that share government datasets through Web interfaces such as Representational State Transfer and Web services.

In the end, Kasun said, “what makes data high value is public demand for that data.” Commercial developers must be able to access the data more easily to create that demand or public interest will wane, he added.

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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