Under an executive order, civilian agencies must produce data in open, machine-readable form to promote public access and commercial use.
Under an executive order, civilian agencies must produce data in open, machine-readable form to promote public access and commercial use. (Stock image)
President Obama issued an executive order May 9 to require civilian agencies to produce data in open, machine-readable form to promote public access and commercial use. The presidential order and an accompanying implementation memo from the Office of Management and Budget puts teeth behind a policy launched almost one year ago with the release of the administration's Digital Government strategy, which touted open data as a potential engine of economic growth.
The order is a long time coming: The original digital strategy memo promised that open data standards would be released in November of 2012.
"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," said President Obama in a statement. "Starting today, we're making even more government data available online, which will help launch even more new startups. And 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."
Agencies are required to create and collect information with an eye to its release in machine-readable format -- in spreadsheet form at least, if not in XML, JSON or other programmer-friendly formats. The order and supporting documents also reiterate and clarify the principles of open data: Making it public, accessible, clearly described, reusable, complete, timely and "managed post-release." That last point specifies that "a point of contact must be designated to assist with data use and to respond to complaints about adherence to these open data requirements."
The open data framework applies even for information the government doesn't intend to make public. "Whether or not particular information can be made public, agencies can apply this framework to all information resources to promote efficiency and produce value," the OMB memo states.
Agencies have a few concrete deliverables under the plan. The most forward facing of these is the creation of a data page at each agency that lists publicly available government datasets. The OMB memo mandates a common architecture across agencies, with data showcased on a page reachable by adding "/data" to the agency URL. A quick scan shows that few agencies have built such data pages; notable exceptions include the Census Bureau and the Federal Communication Commission.
The OMB memo also directs agency heads to ensure that chief information officers are "positioned with the responsibility and authority implement the requirements" of the open data policy. The memo is signed by CIO Steven VanRoekel, CTO Todd Park, new OMB Director Sylvia M. Burwell and Dominic J. Mancini, the acting administrator for OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
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