Default to open data: an Executive Order

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Transparency in government

Last week, The White House published an Executive Order by which the default method for government data collection and dissemination must now be:

  • Open
  • Machine Readable

In Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, President Obama invokes the general principle that:

Openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.

As a clear example:

Decades ago, the U.S. Government made both weather data and the Global Positioning System freely available. Since that time, American entrepreneurs and innovators have utilized these resources to create navigation systems, weather newscasts and warning systems, location-based applications, precision farming tools, and much more, improving Americans' lives in countless ways and leading to economic growth and job creation.

Based on these principles, the executive order calls for the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue a new Open Data Policy to advance the management of Government information as an asset. These Open Data policy is required to include and analysis and proper safeguards for:

  • Privacy
  • Confidentiality
  • National Security

To facilitate the implementation of this Open Data Policy, the Executive Order includes the following directives:

Within 30 days, The US CIO and CTO:

shall publish an open online repository of tools and best practices to assist agencies in integrating the Open Data Policy into their operations in furtherance of their missions.

Within 90 days, the offices involved in federal grants and acquisitions will:

identify and initiate implementation of measures to support the integration of the Open Data Policy requirements into Federal acquisition and grant-making processes. Such efforts may include developing sample requirements language, grant and contract language, and workforce tools for agency acquisition, grant, and information management and technology professionals.

This means that new grants and contracts from the US Federal government will by default include language and clauses requiring compliance with the Open Data Policy.

Finally, the order explicitly clarifies that:

Nothing in this order shall compel or authorize the disclosure of privileged information, law enforcement information, national security information, personal information, or information the disclosure of which is prohibited by law.

Todd Park (US CTO) and Steven VanRoekel (US CIO) explain the policy in 60 seconds in this video.

Beyond the excitment of seeing government embrace openness, it is great to see that the White House is not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk. The Open Data Policiy is being drafted publicly and openly in this Github repository.

Taking advantage of the recently added Github feature to directly serve web pages from hosted repositories, the rendered Open Data Policy pages can be seen here.

Would you like to suggest any changes to the policy?

See some suggested changes in pull requests now.

If all this Git lingo sounds like Klingon to you, then no worries, you are not excluded from participation yet. Try the direct editing feature on Github, and start editing pages—it's easier that editing Wikipedia! Then, submit your suggested changes for integration into the policy.

Just as Clay Shirky was forecasting recently, when we put the collaboration tools of open souce communities at the service of government and society, a new opportunity for democratic participation emerges:

A new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetime. In the last decade, in fact. It's large. It's distributed. It's low cost, and it is compatible with the ideals of democracy. The question for us now is: Are we going to let the programmers keep it for themselves or are we going to try and take it and press it into service for society at large?

Shirky's prediction has already materialized here. Github is not just for code anymore, and openness is not only for software and data. The tools of open collaboration have now been unleashed in the hands of the public and made accessible to all citizens.

It is now our turn to contribute our edits to the future.

Luis Ibáñez works as Senior Software Engineer at Google Inc in Chicago.

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