VA joins open data revolution with new website

Tuesday - 12/24/2013, 2:13pm EST

Marina Martin, chief technology officer, Veterans Affairs Department

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A new era in open data is arriving at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is unrolling a brand new, open data website to give people an inside look at the agency.

"VA Open Data is all non-sensitive, non-personal information, things like lists of VA locations and lists of VA benefits, so that we can allow the public and particularly developers to integrate this information into the apps and into the services they're providing," Marina Martin, VA's chief technology officer, told In Depth with Francis Rose Monday.

Marina Martin, VA chief technology officer

VA's website is the latest part of the goverment's overall Open Data Initiative, which the administration launched on President Barack Obama's first day in office. The White House bolstered the open data effort in May by mandating that agencies make data accessible and open online.

"People want to build apps and services for veterans or perhaps the general public but with specific services for veterans," Martin said. "What they have to do each time is they end up reinventing the wheel. They end up trying to track down lists of VA hospitals or lists of homeless resources and they start those databases from scratch each time."

Martin hopes that through its new website, the VA will be able to provide the information the public and developers want in one authoritative source.

In addition to providing links to VA's own information, VA Open Data includes information about Data.gov, where people can find 171 open datasets from other government agencies.

The first step VA had to take in gathering information for VA Open Data was educating its staff about what constitutes data.

"A lot of people don't realize that a spreadsheet of locations or grant applicant recipients is actually data that people are interested in seeing and using," Martin said. "So, first it's kind of an educational effort and seeing what data we already have that's readily available to post online."

VA is also interested in collaborating on open data resources across agencies.

"Up until the President's executive order and the corresponding OMB policy memo, requiring agencies to publish data in open by default, we really had a lot less visibility into open data that other agencies had," Martin said.

With 327,000 employees, VA is the largest civilian agency in the federal government.

"It's helpful to see what other public data assets different divisions within our department have," Martin said. "Things like lists of dialysis centers can be compared with census data that can be compared with HHS data on different chronic illness outcomes to really make some interesting visualizations and insights."

As the drive for more open data spreads across the federal landscape, more and more agencies are discovering data from other agencies that helps them to enhance their own mission and to serve the public better.

VA wants to make its information available so that people using search engines like Google and Bing can readily find the detailed, VA-related information they're seeking.

"We want to provide that same service for people searching for veteran resources and frankly resources across the federal government," Martin said. "We're actually working with those major search engines to release structured lists of the benefits that every agency offers, including VA, so that if you're a veteran in Idaho and you're searching for unemployment benefits, instead of having to navigate a whole bunch of links, right there, at the top of the search, you see what resources VA has to offer for you with the right contact number and the right Web link."

Martin said it's still early days in VA's open data effort. She's looking forward to receiving feedback from members of the public and developers on what veterans resources her agency can provide.

"We want to look to the innovators and the nonprofits to tell us what they might be able to do with that data," she said. "But we really want to encourage a conversation."

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