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The Death of Open Data?

The battle over budget cuts may gut the U.S. government’s effort to make information more widely available.

Data.gov, a flagship of the U.S. government’s transparency efforts, looks to be on the chopping block as budget cuts reduce the Electronic Government Fund from $35 million to $8 million. It isn’t yet clear how data.gov will be affected, but it could be shut down or severely limited.

When President Barack Obama took office, he started a major initiative to open up government data to citizens. He appointed Vivek Kundra as the United States’ first chief information officer and launched a flurry of Internet-based open-data efforts that were imitated by several cities.

That now seems a distant memory as politicians cast about for programs that can be cut to reduce the federal budget deficit. But data experts say the loss of data.gov could stifle a growing movement that is trying to help citizens get more benefit from data they are already paying for.

“Government data has been around for a long time, but it often hasn’t been open,” says Rufus Pollock, an associate of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that works to promote the availability of data that can be freely used, transformed, and shared.

In many countries, Pollock says, citizens cannot access and use government data. Even in the United States, where citizens have access to a relatively large amount of data, there are often practical obstacles to getting hold of it in a form that demonstrates its value. For example, he says, the average citizen isn’t likely to pore over a 30,000-line spreadsheet that shows how his or her tax dollars are spent. If that information were presented as a visualization, however, most people would be interested, he says.

Making information useful relies on what Pollock calls “infomediaries”—companies and people who can reprocess data and feed it into charts, websites, visualizations, and apps. Data.gov helps, he says, by providing a central repository of data for those uses. “We’re only just beginning to see what people can do when they’re able to transform and share that data,” he says.

One of the most important things data.gov has done is establish a consistent format that makes it much easier for others to come along and reprocess the data, says Harlan Yu, a PhD student at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. While most people see only the data.gov website, Yu says, the infrastructure behind it is just as critical. He spent six months working on opening government data at the Department of Labor, and he found data.gov instrumental in providing guidance and determining standards as he tried to make more of the organization’s information accessible to the public.

Putting information in the hands of people beyond government “frees you from getting one single monolithic view,” Yu says. Third-party developers, he adds, are likelier to repackage data in more manageable bits.

Even without data.gov, developers would be able to find valuable sources of data, says Joseph Kelly, chief operating officer of Infochimps, a company that repackages data into feeds that can be easily added to applications and websites. The information on data.gov typically needs another layer of accessibility and processing, he says, which is part of what his company provides. But he believes the site still performs a key role: helping to connect data to the right audience.

Some data sets—such as those related to the Census—are downloaded more often than others, but Kelly says that less popular data sets can still be very useful in the right application. His company is working on packaging information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to facilitate apps that help people find local farmers. Though the data by itself might seem obscure, Kelly says, an app built on it could strike a chord with the local-food movement.

Pollock says what’s most concerning about cutting the Electronic Government Fund is that it represents a turn away from Obama’s open-government policies. “The website is really great, but the crucial thing is the actual data,” he says. Though data.gov is a symbol whose loss would be painful, the real question is whether the U.S. government will continue to make its data more accessible and useful, with or without it.

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