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5/19/2010
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Data.gov To Relaunch Friday

The federal government's online data repository is getting a redesign that will add Microsoft's Bing search, feature links to data sets and applications, and focus on usability.

The Obama administration is releasing this Friday a new version of Data.gov, the federal government's online data repository. The refreshed Web site will include integrated Microsoft Bing search, featured data sets, and links to Web applications that take advantage of government data.

In its first year since launching last May, Data.gov has received 97.6 million hits, amassed 250,028 government data sets, and spurred the development of 237 applications and mashups that use data from the site, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Following the Obama administration's lead, open data Web sites have popped up around the country and around world.

There have been questions, however, about Data.gov's usability, and although federal CIO Vivek Kundra has said the response from developers has exceeded his expectations, work remains to be done around building a broader community around the site and the data.

In addition, the vast majority of data sets on Data.gov are map data, though guidance from the administration's Open Government Directive should help change that by requiring agencies to focus on the release of "high value" data.

Visitors to Data.gov on Friday will notice a new look and feel to the site, one that is more in line with that of the federal IT Dashboard or USASpending.gov than the initial version of Data.gov. "We've built this for the average person instead of just building it for data experts," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in a meeting with journalists Tuesday. "We want to make sure the average user doesn't have to take days figuring out how to use this."

The evolution of the site comes through agile development sessions followed up by work with focus groups in order to ensure the site meets users' needs and demands. Data.gov's developers studied usage patterns, looked to optimize the site for speed, and made sure to leverage consumer technology such as Microsoft's Bing to make the site more useable, according to Kundra.

The addition of Bing for search, a decision made by the General Services Administration through a partnership between Data.gov and Search.USA.gov, is something that's already been integrated into the site as it looks today. This improvement was made so that users would no longer have to "wander through" the site, Kundra said.

The new site will also highlight third-party efforts to build Data.gov-based applications. For example, it will link to work done by a small team led by Prof. James Hendler at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to quickly build data visualization apps and mashups from government data sets, including visualizations of the White House visitor list, a map of ozone levels nationwide, and maps and visualizations of international aid levels.

Kundra highlighted what he called "transparency at the data element level" in the new site: features that give more insight into what people are looking at. Visitors will be able to see the top 10 data sets by number of downloads and the top states and countries visiting Data.gov and looking at certain data sets. In addition, data sets suggested by the public will be tagged with an icon that looks like multi-colored raised hands.

In order to grow the Data.gov community, the site has brought on board Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to engage developers, the public and even students to see what they want and need from Data.gov. Holm said the outreach would include, among other things, social networking.

Some challenges still remain for Data.gov. Agencies are still new at releasing data on the site, and the execution of their official open government plans is still in the earliest stages.

Kundra also noted Tuesday that in some instances, releasing some key data would require capital investment to upgrade decades-old systems. "That has been more difficult than we had expected," he said.

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