Commentary

05/20/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Transparency train keeps rolling with President’s open data executive order


President Obama's open data executive order harkens back to President Reagan's GPS order. (Photo: publik18)

If you’ve ever trusted the automated voice of a turn-by-turn navigation system to guide you to any destination, you can thank President Ronald Reagan for helping get you there.

If it weren’t for the former California governor’s decision to make all GPS data available to the public after a South Korean airliner was shot down after inadvertently flying into Soviet air space, we’d still rely on the Thomas Guide or the position of the North Star to get around. The creation of navigation and location-based apps, such as Google Maps and Foursquare, were made possible by the release of the military’s satellite navigation data.

Making government data accessible to the public proved to be economically beneficial, unexpectedly spurring private sector innovation and job creation. Today, GPS data alone fuels a multi-billion dollar industry employing more than 3 million Americans

Hoping to inspire a new and greater wave of entrepreneurship and economic growth, President Barack Obama issued a historic executive order and new open data policy making vast troves of previously inaccessible government data available for public scrutiny and use.

“We’re making even more government data available online, which will help launch even more new startups,” said President Obama in a statement. “And 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.” 

In addition to fostering economic activity, the new policy institutionalizes transparency at the federal level by making government data open by default.

Applying a similar strategy in California that leverages the state’s deep entrepreneurial spirit and fosters civic innovation could improve government transparency and accountability.

"The Administration's focus on open access reflects exactly the kind of transition we are hoping to see here in California,” said Robb Korinke of Socal-based Grassroots Lab.

“Rather than an emphasis on FOIA requests and other passive forms of transparency, the Federal government is moving towards true 'freedom of information,' where critical data is available to innovators in the public and private sector. This builds a foundation that will spur the creation of new tools and research that enables government to be more efficient, accountable and accessible."

Going forward, federal agencies are directed to provide all data in machine-readable formats and to develop and maintain a current inventory of all data collected.

Although many California cities, officials, and entrepreneurs are leading the charge toward a more open and inclusive government, California Forward’s analysis of the state of transparency in California finds that, overall, California’s open government infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th century.

Furthermore, recent attempts to institute a similar open data standard in California have been thwarted. Last year Governor Brown vetoed a bill that would have required public information be published in user-friendly and machine-readable formats.

However, transparency extends beyond shifting public documents from a metal filing cabinet to a digital folder. Without the proper context, how will people even know what they are looking at, much less be able to take advantage of its existence.

Acknowledging this caveat, Data.gov (the hub for federal open data) will launch tools to provide users with the background necessary to understand what is newly available.

A similar effort by California Forward, the Transparency Portal, aims to equip Californians with the contextual information required to interpret and analyze local government data. 

Removing barriers to public access to information can foster both economic and social benefits. But shared data alone won’t spur job creation or increase accountability and governmental efficiency; it’s up to us as empowered citizens, entrepreneurs, innovators, and policy wonks to unlock its potential.

Categories: Transparency

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