My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

-Barack Obama

In this memorandum to the heads of the executive departments and agencies, Barack Obama lays out a vision of  open government in which data collected by government – an agent of the people – is readily available to the masses.

Accepting the idea that government should provide information to the public introduces a new set of questions: What is the best way to go about doing this? What types of information do the people want to know? What amount of government resources should be committed to this goal of transparency?

I see two distinct directions that governments  – federal and local – can take with respect to open data.

In one scenario, government agencies build apps online that give the public access to data in ways that the agency has anticipated that the public wants. An example of this would be if a municipality took information from the Census and built an interactive map that allowed potential home buyers to see home values in neighborhoods.

The second approach is more hands-off. It says that government would simply provide the dataset that would back up the map from the first scenario. It would then be up to programmers to build applications with this information as they saw a need for them.

In his book ‘Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice’, Daniel Lathrop argues that there are two distinct waves of government approaches to technology. The first focused, he says, “on automating existing processes and moving existing government services online.”

The second wave, Lathrop continues, presents an opportunity to ‘fundamentally redesign how government operates.’ He says it will help ‘launch a new era of participatory government.’

This second wave Lathrop speaks of is a new paradigm for government data initiatives. Rather than occupying government resources on building an app for a specific use case, agencies should make data available to the public so that programmers and interested groups can use it as they wish. Government can take steps like this to encourage collaboration with programmers and data journalists

An example of the difference between these two approaches is the FAA Airplane Wildlife Strike database I mentioned in an earlier post. Right now, the database is accessible only through an advanced search function. Instead of spending the time building this search function backed up by the database, the FAA could have just made the entire database accessible to programmers who could build applications based on demand.

For instance, instead of requiring data journalists to search through the records and then download search results in csv files, the FAA can spend that time and those resources on building an API that can be integrated with dozens of apps and update automatically when new entries are submitted. Programmers can then make different apps targeted at different audiences that all run off of the same, up-to-date database of information.

In their paper, ‘Government Data and the Invisible Hand,’ David Robinson, et al. argue that the government should fundamentally rethink its role on the internet. This is another example of the shift from one approach to the other. Here, the argument is that government should reduce its role in presenting information and focus more on providing it. They even go so far as to say that this provision of data should be at ‘the core’ of government’s online publishing (rather than websites).

This approach will take advantage of the innovations being made in the private sector when it comes to data presentation while simultaneously lifting the burden of government to innovate constantly in the area.




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