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1/25/2010
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'High Value' Government Data Made Public

The newly published data sets are the first concrete deliverables of the Obama administration's directive toward broader open government strategies.

With the release of almost 300 "high-value" data sets on Data.gov on Friday, the federal government made the first deliveries on the Obama administration's Open Government Directive.

The multi-pronged directive to increase government transparency, developed on orders from President Obama, required agencies last week to identify and publish online at least three high-value data sets that had not been previously available online or in a downloadable format and to register those data sets on Data.gov, the government's open data Website.

Represented among the new data sets are all 24 major government agencies and a number of smaller agencies such as the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve Board, the National Archives, and Records Administration and others.

Included in the volumes of data released are a wide array of data sets: census data about farm operators, estimates of state-level energy use by major economic sectors, data on low rent and Section 8 housing units, annual surveys of jail populations, several sets of bank bailout data, VA hospital report cards, lists of federal advisory committee members, job patterns for minorities and aviation accident statistics.

"The Obama Administration is committed to unlocking public data to drive innovation by tapping into the ingenuity of the American people, increase agency accountability and change the default setting of Washington to be open, transparent and participatory," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in a blog post. "For far too long, government data has been locked within the four walls of Washington and confined to a selected group of people."

Some open government advocates applauded the move. "While it will take some time to examine the data sets' contents and assess whether these are indeed high-value data sets, what is undeniable is that this kind of information release would be unthinkable thirteen months ago," Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at open government group the Sunlight Foundation, wrote in a blog. "Today's actions provide concrete evidence of a major change in the attitude of the executive branch in favor of transparency. Only time will tell if the data lives up to this promise."

On the other hand, the data sets might also indicate a lack of guidance and weaknesses in the effort's requirements to add any context for why certain data sets are being released or what they even contain.

"There are huge differences in the data, and there's no explanation of why certain data was picked," Gartner VP and distinguished analyst Andrea Di Maio said in an interview. "Does it mean high-value for them, or for the American people?"

The definition of high-value is certainly somewhat hazy. According to the directive, high-value information is anything "that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness, improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations, further the core mission of the agency, create economic opportunity, or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation."

The newly published data sets are the first concrete deliverables in a long process of planning and executing broader open government strategies. By last week, agencies were also supposed to have designated a senior-level official to be accountable for quality of Federal spending data publicly disseminated online.

The next step for agencies will be to create an open government Webpage that will be both a "gateway" to agencies' open government efforts and a way to provide the public with information on the agencies' open government plans.

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