Obama administration pushes open data in executive order

Agencies must make government data available in open, machine-readable formats, the president says

U.S. President Barack Obama has signed an executive order requiring that government data be made available in open, machine-readable formats, expanding open-access requirements from earlier in his administration.

A new open data policy, released along with the executive order Thursday, calls information a "valuable national asset" with value that multiples when it is easily accessible to the public.

The goal of the new order is to make "troves" of previously inaccessible or unmanageable data more easily available to entrepreneurs, researchers and other members of the public, the White House said in a press release.

"One of the things we're doing to fuel more private sector innovation and discovery is to make vast amounts of America's data open and easy to access for the first time in history," Obama said in a statement. "And talented entrepreneurs are doing some pretty amazing things with it."

The data released Thursday will help launch more startups, he said. "We're making it easier for people to find the data and use it, so that entrepreneurs can build products and services we haven't even imagined yet," he added.

The executive order and open data policy build on orders Obama has issued in the past. On his first full day in office in his first term, Obama reversed presidential policy when he issued a memo telling federal agencies that they should generally presume government documents are available to the public when they receive Freedom of Information Act requests.

A year ago, Obama ordered all major government agencies to make key services available on mobile phones, in an effort to embrace a growing trend toward Web surfing on mobile devices.

Some open-government groups have praised Obama's moves toward open government, but critics, including many congressional Republicans, have said his administration lacks transparency in several areas, including a drone aircraft program. Digital rights groups have also questioned the administration's secrecy while negotiating trade deals that have copyright enforcement implications.

TechAmerica, an IT trade group, and the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocate, praised Thursday's moves by the administration.

New access to "monumental amount of government data will fuel untold numbers of new innovative ideas in this country," Kevin Richards, TechAmerica's senior vice president of federal government affairs, said in a statement.

The new order "signals a new era for open data in our government," Sunlight Foundation executive director Ellen Miller said in an email.

The order requires government agencies to create internal indexes of their data, make public lists of their public data and list all the data that can be made public, Miller noted.

"Open data is more than bytes, 1s and 0s and lines of code," Miller said. "It's not just a set of information that fuels data portals or app contests. Open data empowers Americans to know how government functions, gives them the means to get engaged and enables them to oversee the special interests."

As part of the executive order, the administration will launch services to improve data visualization and mapping tools at Data.gov. the central repository of U.S. government data. Administration officials are also releasing new open-source tools on Github, a collaborative development site.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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