A cool new policy that makes US government data more accessible than ever

Yesterday, the President signed an Executive Order committing all federal government data to be open and accessible by default. This isn’t the first time that President Obama has signed an executive order about the importance of transparency and open government. So, what makes yesterday different?

This time, we’re talking about an open data policy with teeth. An executive order has the full force of law, and this one compels agencies to compile lists of their databases, which of those can be made public, and then make them public in accessible, machine-readable formats. It also ensures that any new systems are created with an eye on making it easier to make new data public. A term that’s usually reserved for techies, machine-readable means simply that instead of being trapped in a format that a computer program couldn’t immediately analyze in large quantities (example: PDF), you can download it in a format friendly to analysis.

In support of the Executive Order, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a memo outlining the new Open Data Policy. The policy will institutionalize those open data principles. It will also help agencies meet the new requirements. Soon, a huge amount of government data will be made public. In order to help communities of developers use the data, the government is also releasing free tools on Github as part of Project Open Data. The idea is that anyone will be able to use these tools, allowing developers and entrepreneurs to make use of it in new and exciting ways.

This isn’t the first time that data has been made available to the public, but it is the first time that government data is open by default. I would bet open data is already more a part of your life than you realize. The Obama Administration considers these vast oceans of data a national asset whose value increases as citizens make use of it. Whole industries have come out of datasets that were opened to the public. Weather data has generated a whole sector of business which includes private weather forecasting, commercial agriculture advisory services and new weather insurance industries.

One of the benefits of the new open data policy is the innovation it’s expected to spur. When President Reagan opened up the data from Global Positioning Systems (GPS), he was hoping it would give us more accurate mapping, but I doubt he could have predicted the location-based applications that help us find the direction of the nearest pizza place, or how far we’ve run. Now, these applications are a part of our daily lives, and many people make their living creating, using and participating in the organizations and companies they’ve helped create.

The open data and open government movements have been gaining momentum. The Open Government Partnership has resulted in a huge wave of government commitments to openness, which are intended to give citizens around the world more information about how their governments work and how they can work for them. We hope that these recent steps by the US turn into an example for how governments can overcome the inertia of closed systems and put online open databases people can use.

So we don’t know exactly what will come out of this new Open Data Policy. What we do know is that we’ll have more information about our government, how it operates, and the people it serves, and when you combine information with creativity, that’s cause for excitement.

Got a question or idea? Let me know in a comment below and I’ll try to respond.