Open Government – are Data.Gov and Apps.Gov delivering on their promise ?

There is certainly a long list of challenges facing the Obama administration – the economy, healthcare, and two wars just to name a few.  Regardless of your politics, I think there is one aspect of the Administration’s efforts that require further discussion and exploration.  On his first day in office President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.  The memorandum outlined a commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government…” It promised to “ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”  My intent in this post is not to have a broader discussion on the topic of the Administration’s openness, but rather to explore two very specific components of that pledge – the launch of Data.Gov and Apps.Gov

As part of his focus on technology as a key driver of government effectiveness, openness and efficiency President Obama appointed two impressive and accomplished executives to lead this effort:   Vivek Kundra (Federal CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (Federal CTO).  I have had the privilege of meeting and talking to both Vivek and Aneesh and have been impressed with their plans to leverage technology, especially Web 2.0 and Social Media, to provide enhanced services to citizens.  Data.Gov and Apps.Gov are two important components of that effort.

Data.Gov was launched in 2009.  The stated objective of Data.Gov is to” increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”  Data.Gov provides three kinds of data catalogs.  “Raw” Data Catalog: a catalog with instant view/download of platform-independent, machine readable data (e.g., XML, CSV, KMZ/KML, or shape file formats).  Tools Catalog: a catalog to provide the public with simple, application-driven access to Federal data with hyperlinks. This catalog features widgets, data mining and extraction tools, applications, and other services. Geodata Catalog:  a catalog that includes trusted and authoritative Federal geospatial data. This catalog includes links to download the datasets and a metadata page with details on the datasets, as well as links to more detailed Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata information. (source: faq)

Currently the data set includes 1,078 Raw Data, 484 Tools and 167,394 Geodata records.   A review of the data currently available” by Agency” provides some interesting insight.  The US EPA had 6,151 downloads of data the week prior to Feb 8th, 2010.  The Department of the Interior and the US Treasury came in second and third with 4,352 and 4,079 downloads,  respectively.  The US EPA also had the most raw data sets at 426 while the lowest number of data sets came from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at zero (yes that is zero – somehow this made me a little nervous !).

The US Government and its many agencies produce massive amounts of data each year.  By providing academics, researchers and companies access to this data we may enable  individual researcher to find a cure for cancer or a college department to discover a weather pattern that can prevent natural disasters.  This is the power of open access to data – for the people, by the people !

Apps.Gov  is a very interesting and potentially powerful initiative.   Essentially this is a private cloud for the US Government.   Managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), Apps.Gov includes Business Apps, Productivity Apps, Social Media Apps and Cloud IT Services. The platform/exchange is similar to other successful private sector application exchanges such as the  SAP EcoHub , the Salesforce AppExchange and of course the  Apple Iphone App Store.

Apps.Gov provides government agencies a single marketplace to buy and use a broad range of applications.  In the Business Apps section for example  HP has 526 solutions listed, Microsoft has 65, VMWare has 716 and Salesforce has 67.  Several other companies have multiple solutions available.  Apps.Gov could have a profound impact on how the US Government buys and consumes software. 

So here is the Right Question:  Have and delivered on their promise of fostering an open, efficient and effective government ?   Are they on the right track and what would you do different ?

I would welcome your views and opinions and especially your stories if you have used data from these sites or have any other experience related to this effort.



Photo Credit: Ian-s


3 Responses

  1. Zia, I think the charter is ambitious and very well intended, and there are good people committed to it and working on it (I had a chance to chat briefly with Aneesh Chopra at the Web 2.0 Summit last fall – he and Vivek Kundra both impress me). However, it feels like it’s a lower tier priority for the administration (somewhat understandably) and moving slowly and more shallowly than they might like.

    Also, something as simple as a search engine applied to all non-confidential federal documents, proposals, contracts, communications, and transcripts would be of value and should theoretically be easy to implement given current technology.

    One other facet of the discussion is that, due to the nature of our governmental structures at the local, regional, state, and federal level, the federal initiatives constitute only a small fraction of the high value data that could be made available. Perhaps the federal government could provide a cloud-based framework that state, county, and local governments could leverage to achieve their own transparency (and theoretically some cost efficiency).

    I’m involved in park, recreation, and trail development in my township. In order to try to properly coordinate trail planning, a substantial amount of GIS and other data is needed that goes well beyond simple maps. It requires knowing who owns what plots of land, zoning restrictions, environmental study data and climatic data, and tons more. That data is most definitely not accessible to the average citizen today. It spans township, county, state and federal agencies. I would love to see this type of information made openly and readily available in a consistent format.

    Another virtual “tax” that could be eliminated through open data exchange is that of the title search. Anyone who has purchased a home or property is well aware of this cost. The very nature of a title search should become a 10 second online search, that could be done for $10.

    It is just as likely that there are many who profit from the obscurity and inaccessibility of this data, and who will resist its digitization and a move to transparency. But it needs to happen, as these are non-value added activities that could be replaced with useful output.

    Just my $0.05, before taxes.

  2. Rick, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I tend to agree with you. This is a small start, only covers a portion of the data available, and you are right probably it is not the highest priority.

    However, given the historical lack of action by governments on this topic, I am personally encouraged by the vision and the direction – though the progress could be much more.

    Completely agree with you on things like the title search. Check out Microsoft new product launched at TED this afternoon – Pivot.

    The world is moving in the direction of open information and analysis. I think we can all agree that is a good thing.


    • Zia and Rick
      openess is good as long as we have strong laws and effective controls that protect against identity theft which is a huge concern for our gov. Questions: 1) is this a higher priority for our gov that data and apps? 2) what mechanisms to trace and laws to punish identity theft are being developed? A friends identity was recently stolen in the last 6 wks and she has not been able to get any response or traceabilty from the likes of Google

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