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Analysts Assess Federal Open Data Policy

On the whole, analysts favor the new guidelines outlined in the president’s new open data policy -- and how the policy was announced.

by / May 13, 2013
Federal CTO Todd Park and CIO Steven VanRoekel announce a new White House open data policy on May 9, 2013.

Following the new Open Data Executive Order signed last week by President Barack Obama and the federal release of new Open Data Policy Guidelines, analysts have been speaking out, many of whom appear to be in favor of both the order and its new guidelines.

The federal open data policy requirements state that federal agencies must use data standards and machine-readable open formats, and must build information systems to support interoperability and information accessibility, to name a few. 

John Wonderlich, a policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, blogged about the new policy requirements on Thursday, May 9, writing that the requirements address one of the most challenging hurdles the federal government faces when dealing with data: the sheer amount.

“How can we reset the default to openness when there is so much data?" he wrote. "How can we take on managing and releasing all the government’s data, or as much as possible, without negotiating over every dataset the government has?”

One of the new policy’s most substantial provisions, according to the Sunlight Foundation, is the creation of a public listing of agency data based on an internal audits of information holdings. But is this list provision a first of its kind? It may very well be, as the foundation notes that its creation is "part of the next evolution of open data policies."

But it is important to note that individual federal departments have released open data prior to the Open Data Executive Order announcement. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation released high-value open data publicly in part with its Open Government Plan.

And according to a May 13, blog post from the Sunlight Foundation, “ … cities around the country have actively pursued these inventories, too, though most of these initiatives are too new for us to see the listings that will result.”

For Clay Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the Department of Better Technology, the policy’s emphasis on integrating its requirements into federal acquisition and grant-making processes was particularly notable. He said this piece of the policy may be indicative to adapting newer RFP practices.

“Maybe the federal government wants to create its own Open RFP Library,” Johnson said. “Or maybe it’s foreshadowing to an IT overhaul executive order that couples itself with this?”

And although Johnson touts the new policy to be an overall success for the federal government, he hopes funding won’t become a challenge.

“I suspect that most of the things the White House is asking agencies to do can be done in individual increments for less than $150,000,” Johnson said.

And some industry leaders have said that not only is the policy itself reshaping government practices, but the way the policy’s announcement was made is also creating change.

Jed Sundwall, president of Measured Voice, an Internet communications consultancy for the private and public sectors, said the fact that the new policy was announced by Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and CTO Todd Park through an online video produced by the White House essentially broke barriers in communication to ensure the public could more easily find out about the new policy. Instead of the news being delivered during a conference to other government officials and journalists, the news was directly announced through video to the public.

“You have [VanRoekel and Park]; they’re accountable for this policy,” Sundwall said. “It’s their thing, they sit down in front of a camera and they look directly into the camera and speak directly to the viewer and explain the policy.”

By creating that direct communication on the open data policy’s announcement, Sundwall said the federal government is further promoting transparency.

Sundwall said a notable feature about the data policy memo and its documentation is that the White House is hosting the information on GitHub – an open source platform that allows for teams of software coders to track and make changes to a codebase when developing code for a project.

He said with the policy information on GitHub, people will be able to recommend changes to it as well. “I think it’s a really cool way to document policy."

Photo: Federal CTO Todd Park and CIO Steven VanRoekel announce a new White House open data policy on May 9, 2013.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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