White House to mandate machine-readable open data

Monday - 1/7/2013, 5:25am EST

Todd Park, federal chief technology officer

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White House technology leaders are close to issuing a new policy that will change the way agencies release data to the public.

Todd Park, the federal chief technology officer, said Friday the new policy is one of several steps to spur the release of more data from agencies.

"We are going to continue to enlist additional federal agencies in the open data initiatives program as fast track liberators of key existing data sets that could create large scale economics benefit while protecting privacy," Park said at the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology meeting in Washington. "We also, as per the recently announced Digital Government Strategy just this past summer, with OMB will be releasing policy soon that makes open and computer readable the default status of new data created by the government going forward."

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy also is upgrading the Data.gov site and its corresponding communities to make it easier to put up new content based on feedback from developers on what are the most important data sets that have been released and how it was used.

Todd Park, federal chief technology officer

"We will also continue to expand outreach activity to entrepreneurs across the country," Park said. "We've gotten a lot of interest from everyone from venture capital networks to entrepreneur networks to lean launch pad startup weekend type organizations and universities."

Innovation Fellows impact

The new data release policy is part of the deliverables detailed in the Digital Management Strategy, which the Office of Management and Budget released in May. It calls for a new policy for open data, content and web API standards within six months. The policy is now two months late.

"We plan to release the open data policy in early 2013, which will allow us to learn from and build on the ongoing work of Presidential Innovation Fellows working on open data initiatives," said Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer, in an email to Federal News Radio.

The Innovation Fellows are impacting the open data efforts in several ways, including creating an open national design program for a true human readable standard for health records under the Veterans Affairs Department's Blue Button initiative.

"It's gotten more than 240 entrants from professional designers who are participating and the winner will be announced soon," Park said. "And that design for a human readable open format for the Blue Button will be made open source for anyone to download."

The new policy and the addition of innovation fellows are helping agencies move out of that basic stage of open data, which calls for putting any and all information out there.

Park said some agencies already are moving out ahead of the initial phase, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which is integrating semantic Web capabilities with open data. He said one example of HHS' work in this area is the hospital compare portal, which uses hospital care data quality to contrast health care providers.

Expanding to five sectors

The Blue Button initiative is another example of the impact open data is having across the country. Park said Blue Button lets more than 1.4 million current and retired service members download their health information securely.

The private sector also is using the technology behind the Blue Button to offer more than 80 million citizens the ability to download their electronic health care records.

Park said the model used the government to promote open healthcare data is expanding to five other sectors.

  • Energy
  • Education
  • Public Safety
  • Finance
  • International Development

"We are running the same play [as we did with healthcare]," Park said. "We have posted thousands of major government data resources across these sectors for free, easily findable, public access on the Data.gov website and subsidiary sites. We have dedicated community sites for each of these sectors. They are easily findable and very importantly they are computer readable, as much as humanly possible, and available for free."

OMB, which runs with OSTP Data.gov, also added open data from cities, states and counties, and is working with the private sector, such as colleges, to post information to the site.

Park said his office will continue to act as a catalyst for this entire effort. But each agency must continue to lead the individual sector efforts.

"The most valuable thing you can do in those conversations is say, 'There are very concrete benefits that can be produced for the American public if you make this particular data set available' and then point to all the different use cases and point to all the people who are ready to use the data," he said. "Then, in my experience, it changes the conversation quite significantly because people see the business case of why to do it, and a relatively modest investment in most cases of time and maybe a little bit of money required to make the data available in machine readable form is something that moves a long much more easily."

Park said agencies are more excited than ever in making data available. He said departments are requesting that his office help set up data jams and datapaloozas, where the goal of these efforts are to bring in the private sector to see what could be done with the data to improve services to citizens.

"There is data that I want to get about our data. There are efforts underway to actually do that to more definitively catalog everything we have and to get a better understanding of what could be incredibly valuable," Park said. "We actually don't as a government have definite sets of everything we got. I'm really eager to push on that frontier."

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