Getting Government Data Out to the Public: Data.gov

BY Jamie A. Ostroff  February 9, 2010 at 1:50 PM EDT

Getting data out of government agencies can be difficult. It can involve FOIA requests and weeks — sometimes months — of waiting for a response, along with fees starting at $25.

As it stands, there is a “presumption of needing to be asked for information,” says Clay Johnson, director of the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs.

“That’s part of the problem,” says Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. “The way Washington has operated for too long is that everything is secret until someone uncovers it.”

Kundra’s job is to undo some of that distrust. In May 2009, the Obama administration launched Data.gov. At the time, it included 47 sets of raw government data, organized by agency. But after a Jan. 22 White House directive requiring that all Cabinet-level departments contribute at least three sets of “high value” data to the site, the number of data sets skyrocketed to upwards of 169,000.

The site has had its share of technical difficulties. It contains wide swaths of raw data and can be difficult to navigate. Some data sets are in hard-to-use formats. Data quality — its accuracy and completeness — has been an ongoing problem both at Data.gov and Recovery.gov, which tracks stimulus spending.

For instance, the Department of Transportation provided 141 pages of jumbled HTML code for data intended to help consumers compare ratings of different child-safety seats for cars. When asked about the problem, a spokesperson from the DOT declined to comment.

The lack of organization on Data.gov may reflect the challenge of siphoning data sets through large government agencies within a 45-day deadline. Kundra says that this issue is being addressed along with other improvements to the site, including tools for data comparison, accessibility through search engines such as Google, more compatible downloading and the development of mobile applications.

“It’s going to evolve super fast,” Kundra told us, pointing to Ideascale, a dedicated feedback site his office uses.

Johnson says that feedback is crucial in creating a more transparent relationship between the government and the governed, calling on the American public to be more forgiving with the government in order to see progress. “[Allowing] bad data to exist allows feedback to exist, to correct the data,” he said. “[The public] needs to give government, in some cases, permission to fail.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll check back to see how Data.gov is developing as a resource for the government to share information with its citizens and how citizens are using that information.