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Obama's Open Data Plan: Much Work Ahead

Open government advocates found plenty to praise in Obama administration's latest National Action Plan (NAP). But agencies must now make good on those plans.

Proponents of open government data policies found plenty to praise in the Obama administration's second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), but at least one advocate says agencies still have a lot of work ahead to make good on those plans.

The second NAP, released Dec. 5, builds on a plan unveiled in September 2011 by introducing 23 new or expanded commitments designed to further advance open government efforts. It also outlines a variety of actions, which the administration will carry out over the next two years, to build on past successes and initiate new ones.

Those initiatives include improving the functionality of various government websites such as Performance.gov and Data.gov, expanding the use of challenges and crowdsourcing through the Challenge.gov program, and improving how agencies respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"The commitments are going in the right direction," Joel Gurin, senior advisor at New York University's GovLab, told us. "But to make open data effective as a business driver and economic resource, it's going to require a lot of work on the side of the federal agencies, such as updating their systems and making the data usable." Gurin, who served as chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission in the Obama administration, is author of the upcoming book Open Data Now.

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The administration's previously issued Open Data Policy now has stronger commitments. The latest commitments show real progress toward a government that's more open and accountable, he said. The Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released the Open Data Policy in May to ensure that federal agencies manage government information as an asset. The policy is designed to make previously unavailable government data accessible to entrepreneurs, researchers, and the public.

"In addition to the NAP commitments, I'm eager to see the administration on the path to implement the Open Data Policy," he said. "All these initiatives will make a difference as a whole."

The NAP stresses the importance of the government working together with the public to solve problems. "There's an opportunity for the government to share responsibilities for governance and enable citizens to participate," Gurin said. "The public can offer expertise to the government through petition websites or government-sponsored challenges. It's a new way of communicating and partnering with citizens."

The latest NAP puts more focus on financial transparency and on the integrity of government data. It also lays out commitments to improve public participation in government, modernize the management of government records, make privacy compliance information more accessible, and increase transparency in federal spending -- including making spending data more easily available in open and machine-readable formats.

Making the FOIA process more open, for instance, will actually benefit government, Gurin wrote in a September post on his blog, Opendatanow.com. "The federal government gets about 650 thousand FOIA requests a year, and they're handled by different bureaus in about a hundred agencies." A unified "FOIA system could provide a huge amount of useful information efficiently and democratically if it coordinated responses to FOIA requests and provided them in searchable, downloadable electronic form."

FOIA Online, an electronic system launched a year ago, can organize requests and documents across agencies. Only a few federal agencies are using it, but the government is working to change that. According to the action plan, such improvements are a must for an "open, transparent, and participatory" government.

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Elena Malykhina has written for The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Newsday, and AdWeek. She covers the federal government, including NASA's space missions, for InformationWeek.