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September 2013 · Volume 95 · Number 8


Open Government Data Movement Continues to Accelerate

by Jerry Johnston

“To promote continued job growth, government efficiency, and the social good that can be gained from opening government data to the public, the default state of new and modernized government information resources shall be open and machine readable.”
—Executive Order, President Barack Obama, “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” May 9, 2013.

In 1990, the Clinton administration issued OMB Circular A-16, the policy document that established the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and spurred the conception and development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), a “national information resource, linked to criteria and standards, [to] enable sharing and efficient transfer of spatial data between producers and users.” In the decade that followed, the growth of the World Wide Web provided the technology framework upon which this ambitious vision could actually be realized.

Subsequent revisions to A-16 in 2002 established the requirement to develop the National Spatial Data Clearinghouse, an “electronic service providing access to documented spatial data and metadata from distributed data sources.” The FGDC partner agencies responded to this challenge through the development of robust, comprehensive geospatial metadata standards and the release of the nation’s first major intergovernmental metadata catalog on the Internet, Geospatial One Stop (GOS). In the years that followed, federal agencies as well as their partners in state, regional, and local governments and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community worked together to make tens of thousands of datasets available via the GOS catalog. For the federal government, GOS was in many ways a trailblazing initiative that would help lead to and support the much more comprehensive government open data movement that followed.

An Ambitious Blueprint

On his first day in office, President Obama laid out an ambitious blueprint for the federal government designed to help maximize openness and accountability of government operations and services. This Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government directed the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to work together to develop a comprehensive Open Government Directive that instructs federal agencies to take specific actions to implement practices and procedures for making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

One of the major components of the directive is a comprehensive requirement for federal agencies to publish open government information online in formats that are easy to find, access, and use. Data.gov is a flagship initiative of the Obama administration that was developed to support agencies in making their data available to the public. Data.gov enables agencies to publish their data and descriptions of their data (metadata) to an online catalog.

Built on the principle that no individual should have to understand the federal government’s organizational chart to get needed information, Data.gov allows for users to quickly and easily search and access government data holdings through keyword searches and discovery of data organized by content themes managed by cross-agency communities of practice. In late 2011, GOS was retired and the content it included became a part of the Data.gov catalog. To this day, geospatial metadata represents the vast majority of content available to users of Data.gov.

Incredible Revolution

Now, a little more than four years after the initial launch of Data.gov, it is incredible to see not only the evolution of the site’s content, tools, and capabilities, but the revolution that it has spurred in the public open data community. Today, there are hundreds of public data catalogs available, including more than 80 made available by U.S. cities, counties, and states and more than 200 available from other nations and regional government organizations.

This international open data movement has led to the co-development of the Open Government Platform by the government of India and the U.S. General Services Administration, which allows any organization to download and use the software needed to create and manage its own open data portal.

The open government data movement has continued to accelerate in recent months. The White House recently released the Open Data Policy (M-13-13) and an associated Executive Order that established a foundation designed to institutionalize effective information management to promote interoperability and openness for all federal data. This policy requires agencies to collect, create, and manage data to support secondary data access through the publication of data in machine readable, open, nonproprietary formats with no restrictions on use.

And in the spirit of open and participatory government, portions of the implementation planning for and execution of the requirements of the Open Data Policy have been open sourced through the release of Project Open Data, a collection of community-developed code, tools, and case studies designed to help agencies unlock the potential of open government data. Data.gov itself also has recently undergone a major technology overhaul, and users can see a preview of the redesigned website for the catalog at next.data.gov.

Geospatial Initiatives

The geospatial community continues to be at the forefront of this open data revolution, and it is working hard on two major initiatives that will help our partners and the residents we serve more effectively to take advantage of open geospatial data and services. Federal Geographic Data Committee member agencies are currently working with the entire geospatial community to develop a new strategic plan for the implementation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure and are seeking feedback and input from all interested public and private sector organizations. Please join us in this effort, and provide your thoughts on the draft plan on the FGDC website before August 30 at http://www.fgdc.gov/nsdi-plan.

A cornerstone initiative of the NSDI implementation will be the Geospatial Platform, the government’s new shared-services program for geospatial technology. Leveraging the Data.gov catalog, the Geospatial Platform is designed to enable collaborative understanding, analysis, and solution development to address business and mission needs. It operates on a shared infrastructure using cloud computing to provide collaborative workspaces where multiple agencies and partners can share information in order to develop and provide common geospatial products.

The collaboration environment is enabled through the development of topically focused “communities” that enable users to search, develop, and share data; create common map views; embed those map views into community pages; and develop online information products for use across the community members for sharing with decisionmakers and/or the public.

A preview release of the Geospatial Platform was made available at www.geoplatform.gov earlier this summer to give the community insight into where we are going with this exciting new effort. Over the next several months, and with input from partners through collaboration among the members of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee, we will continue to grow the capabilities of the Geospatial Platform, so please check back on our progress frequently. With these developments, and our broader efforts to re-envision the National Spatial Data Infrastructure via the development of the strategic plan, the geospatial community continues to be at the vanguard of the growing public open data movement.

Jerry Johnston, Ph.D.
Geospatial Information Officer
Office of the Chief Information Officer
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, D.C.

The #LocalGov Technology Alliance is an Esri-ICMA initiative to explore the world of big data, open data, apps and dashboards, and what it all means for local governments. Join the conversation on the #LocalGov Technology Alliance Blog today!

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