Obama's open data era 'coming soon'

White House may open its data door for developers as early as next month

The U.S. may be close to making it easier for application developers to tear into government data as early as next month on its new Web site, data.gov.

Meanwhile, the Web 2.0 era of data openness will get a boost next week by the availability for download of campaign and lobbying data collected by a private group. 

The Center for Responsive Politics, best known for its OpenSecrets.org Web site, has been standardizing, cleaning and organizing campaign and lobbying data on its Web site. It now intends to allow anyone to download compressed CSV text files of its data without charge beginning sometime next week.

It is the center's hope that application developers will take the data and merge, combine and otherwise mash it up with other data sets to reveal new associations and patterns in lobbying and campaign activities.  

"We are hoping that putting this data in more hands has a greater impact," said Massie Ritsch, the center's spokesman. The group is calling the new approach an "open data" model.

The center's goal is similar to the approach President Obama's new federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, intends to take. Kundra plans to make federal data similarly available for the same purpose on data.gov. 

As late as last Saturday, there was a message on the data.gov site announcing that it would launch in late May, but it has since been replaced with a less definitive message: Coming Soon. 

One of Obama's first acts as president was to issue a memorandum to all federal department heads that he wanted a government that was transparent and participatory. There are questions about how willingly or quickly the government will be in converting data into open formats, but one area expected to get a lot of attention will be lobbying activities, (especially among IT vendors) around the massive stimulus plan. 

U.S. agencies already make much of their data available online and have built their methods and approaches for searching through that data. The approach that the Obama administration intends to take is to make the underlying data available in standard formats, and in doing so, harness private sector creativity and technical acumen to make the data available in new ways.

Private groups are already acting in advance of the unveiling of data.gov to stimulate discussion about how the government should collect and organize its data. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that is pushing for transparency is, for instance, suggesting methods for achieving openness.

The foundation this week unveiled designs for forms and search templates as a means to more quickly disclose the activities of lobbyists.

John Wonderlich, the foundation's policy director, said the federal government will collect and organize the data in a way that will help developers. Wonderlich said the group has "pretty strong hopes" that the needs of developers will be well-served.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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