Is sunlight the best disinfectant, as Supreme Court Justice Brandeis famously said?
This week in Washington, D.C., hundreds of experts have come together at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) to explore how data can also help citizens to make better decisions and underpin new economic growth. The IOGDC agenda is online, along with the presenters.
"Since the United Kingdom and United States movement started, lots of
other countries have followed," said Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of
the World Wide Web. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France and Finland
are all working on open data initiatives.
As he noted with a smile, the "beautiful race" between the U.S. and U.K. on the Data.gov and Data.gov.uk
websites was healthy for both countries, as open data practitioners
were able to learn from one another and share ideas. That race was
corked off when former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Tim Berners-Lee
how the United Kingdom could make the best use of the Internet. When
Berners-Lee responded to "put government data on the Web," Brown
assented, and Data.gov.uk was born.
Berners-Lee explored the principles of open linked data that underpin data.gov.uk and open government.
Specifically, he emphasized his support for open standards and formats
over proprietary versions of either, inviting everyone present to join
the W3C open government data working group.
Berners-Lee also reiterated his "five star system" for open government data:
- 1 Stars for putting data on the Web at all, with an open license. PDFs get 1 star.
- 2 Stars if it's machine-readable. Excel qualifies, though Berners-Lee prefers XML or CSVs.
- 3 Stars for machine-readable, non-proprietary formats
- 4 Stars if the data is converted into open linked data standards like RDF or SPARQL
- 5 Stars when people have gone through the trouble of linking it
"The more transparency there is, there more likely there is to be
external investment," said Berners-Lee, highlighting the potential for
open government data to make countries more attractive to the global
Will open data spread to more
cities, states and countries, as HTML did in the 1990s? If the open
standards and technologies that Berners-Lee advocates for are adopted,
perhaps. "The Web spread quickly because it was distributed," said
Berners-Lee. "The fact that people could put up Web servers themselves
without asking meant it spread more quickly without a centralized
Putting open government data to work
Following Berners-Lee, federal CIO Vivek Kundra highlighted how far
the open government data movement has come in the short time since
President issued his open government memorandum in January 2009.
Kundra remarked that he's "seeing more and more companies come
online" in the 7 countries have embarked on an open government movement
that involves democratizing data. He also reeled off a list of
statistics to highlight the growth of the Data.gov platfrom.
- Within the boundaries of the United States, Kundra observed that 16 states and 9 cities have stood up open data platforms
- 256 applications have now been developed on top of the Data.gov platform
- There are now 305,692 data sets available on Data.gov
- Since Data.gov was launched in 2009, it has received 139 million hits.
The rapid growth of open government data initiatives globally
suggests that there's still more to come. "When I look at Data.gov
platform and where we are as a global community, we're still in the very
early days of what's possible," said Kundra.
He emphasized that releasing open data is not just a means of holding
government accountable, focusing three lenses on its release:
- Accountability, both inside of government and to citizens
- Utility to citizens, where, as Kundra said, "data
is used in the lives of everyday people to improve the decisions they
makes or services they receive on a daily basis
- Economic opportunities created as a results of open data.
Kundra pointed to a product recalls iPhone app created by a developer as an example of the second lens. The emerging ecosystem of healthcare apps is an example of both of the latter two facets, where open health data spurs better decisions and business growth.
"The simple act of opening up data has had a profound impact on the
lives of ordinary people," said Kundra, who pointed to the impact of the
Veterans Administration's Blue Button.
Over 100,000 veterans have now downloaded their personal health
records, which tundra said has stimulated innovation in blue button
readers to connect systems from Google or Microsoft.
"I predict that we'll have an industry around data curation and
lightweight applications," said Kundra. "The intersection of multiple
data sets are where true value lies." The question he posed to the
audience is to consider how the government will move to towards an
API-centric architecture that allows services to access data sets on a
When asked about that API strategy and the opportunity costs of pursuing it by open government advocate Harlan Yu,
Kundra said that he follows an "80/20" rule when it comes to the
government building apps vs third parties. "Do we want to be a grocery
store or a restaurant when it comes to the Data.gov platform and
movement?" he asked.
As a means of answering that question, Jeanne Holm, the former chief
knowledge architect at the NASA Jet Propulsion and current Data.gov
evangelist, announced a new open government open data community at Data.gov that will host conversations about the future of the platform.
Kundra also made three announcements on Monday:
For Berners-Lee, it was to be able to directly access data from a
dashboard on laptop, rather than indexes and catalogs on Data.gov and
data.gov.uk. He talked about accessing open government data that wasn't
just machine-readable or linked to other sets but directly accessed
from his local machine, called through powerful Python scribts.
- A new Harvard Business School case study on Data.gov, available for free to government employees
- A United States-United Kingdom partnership on open government, which will include an open government data camp later this week
- The release of a concept of operations for Data.gov,
embedded below, which includes strategic goals for the site, an
operation overview and a site architecture.
In contrast, Kundra talked about being able to go to a store like
Brookstone and "in the same way you can buy alarm clocks with data in
the weather channel," how data from federal agencies had been employed
to provision objects from everyday life.
To be fair, there's a long way to go yet before that vision becomes reality. As Andrew Odewahn pointed out at Radar, earthquakes are HUGE on Data.gov, consistently bringing in the most downloads, even ahead of those product recall data sets. While provisioning recurring visualization in the Popular Mechanics iPad App
might be useful to the publisher, it's also a reminder that the full
vision for delivering utility to citizens through open data that Kundra
hopes for hasn't come to fruition as a result of Data.gov - yet.