Setting Data Free

Data.gov helps app developers tap government information, but that isnt really the problem.

The government launched its massive data set trove Data.gov in 2009 with a clear mission: to put information the government was gathering anyway into the hands of private sector and nonprofit Web and mobile app developers.

Once that data was out, the White House imagined, developers would set about turning it into useful products—optimizing Census Bureau statistics for marketers; Commerce Department data for exporters; and Housing and Urban Development Department information for building contractors, mortgage brokers and insurance adjusters. 

When necessary, the government also would be able to prime the pump with agency-sponsored code-a-thons and app development competitions sponsored through Challenge.gov, a White House initiative that paid out $38 million to prize-winning developers during its first year, which ended in September.

But turning government data into private sector products has proved more complicated in practice. 

Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, are posting new data sets regularly and rapidly in machine-readable form, but other agencies have shown little interest in devoting dwindling resources to making data more accessible. Agency data publication schedules also are often too slow for the go-go world of mobile apps.  

“The theory behind Data.gov was, let’s move forward when it comes to sharing data,” says Josh Green, chief executive officer of Panjiva, a company that crunches customs data for U.S. businesses that import some of their raw materials. “I think that’s right in terms of what would be good for entrepreneurship, but realistically I don’t think that has filtered down to the agency level.” While Panjiva relies on some Census data, which it downloads directly from the Census Bureau, the company uses mostly Customs and Border Protection data on CD-ROMs that it pays to have delivered every day by FedEx.

Panjiva analyzes that data to determine which overseas suppliers have the strongest track records with U.S. partners and then sells the results to companies looking for new suppliers.

Green jokes about the incongruity of snail mailing digital customs logs, but notes that Panjiva’s upfront work to capture imports data is a big reason the company was able to corner the market.

Another company, Brighter Planet, uses EPA and Energy Department data to build Web and mobile apps that auto-calculate the environmental impact of various activities. The for-profit
company created a product for corporate
MasterCard users to determine the environmental impact of their transactions, and it won a recent EPA Challenge.gov competition by developing a Web app that compares the carbon footprint of flying, driving or taking a train or bus to different destinations.

Brighter Planet grabs data straight from government agencies rather than from Data.gov, says Andy Rossmeissl, the company’s co-founder and product design director.

Data.gov is laudable, Rossmeissl says, but developers’ biggest hurdle with government data isn’t finding it, but getting it quickly and in a form they can use. “That wasn’t the focus of Data.gov and, in general, it isn’t the focus of agencies producing data,” he says. “That’s not because their intentions aren’t great, but they have a history of producing data in a very specific way that goes back to the Federal Register and quarterly releases.”

In some cases, agencies also publish data in difficult-to-manipulate forms such as PDFs, significantly increasing the upfront work for developers who then have to create and organize spreadsheets. And agencies often release new information in a different place—or in a different file format—from historic information, Rossmeissl says. 

There is a human side to Data.gov that tries to expand the project’s mission to address formatting and publishing frequency. Data.gov director Jeanne Holm lists open data “evangelist” as a job description on her LinkedIn résumé. Holm and her five-member staff spend much of their time working as liaisons for developers seeking government data—figuring out if it exists at all in the federal sector, which agency produced it and if there’s a convenient way to release it. To make the job easier, they’ve begun standing up communities of data, organized into topical categories such as energy, health, law and, most recently, oceans. 

The Data.gov team also meets regularly
with about 400 agency “data stewards” to change the way government data is initially created so that it requires less translation and reformatting on the back end. 

Even for agencies committed to issuing quality data in a timely way, there are procedural delays that can take a month or more, Holm says. Part of that delay comes from ensuring scientific and technical data meet standard quality requirements. In some cases, agencies also have to aggregate data at a higher level so snoopers can’t figure out sensitive information. Departments want to avoid publishing so many details that it’s possible to determine, for instance, which student in a small school district is receiving lunch subsidies or which resident of a small town has a sexually transmitted disease.

Requirements that data be accessible to people with disabilities can slow the publication of data with embedded maps and graphics. And everything posted to Data.gov must go through a National Security Council check to ensure it doesn’t disclose sensitive security information when combined with other data.

NSC has flagged fewer than 25 of the roughly 400,000 data sets submitted to Data.gov, Holm says, but the process still is time-consuming.

While Brighter Planet doesn’t pull data directly from Data.gov, Rossmeissl calls the project important as a symbol of the Obama administration’s commitment to digital transparency—visible in other initiatives such as programs to store more government records bound for the National Archives in electronic form and to manage more Freedom of Information Act requests online.

The government also is partnering with India to release Data.gov-in-a-Box, an open source version of the open data site that other nations, states or cities can adopt. “Across the board, this administration has really made open data a priority,” Rossmeissl says. “When you see the effort they’ve put into Data.gov, you can’t argue with that.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.