What does the White House's Executive Order mean for Open Government?

(Part 1 of the "Open Gov" blog series)

The White House's Executive Order of May 9, will cause a shift in the way that Federal agencies present data. The Executive Order, “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” mandates that, “the default state of new and modernized Government information resources shall be open and machine readable.”

So what does this mean for Federal agencies? Well, that’s a bit nebulous as of right now. But the Order from the White House does define three milestones for issuing further guidance and clarification, of which two have been met. The third was due to be complete August 7, but has not yet been released. To date, the OMB has released the Open Data Policy memo and the White House has published Project Open Data, an online repository of tools and implementation information.

What is not yet available is the Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal due from the Chief Performance Officer. While the Open Data Policy memo and Project Open Data likely provide sufficient detail around which to effectively implement a program in keeping with the goals of the Executive Order on open data, it is the CAP Goal against which Federal agencies must report their progress.

Did I mention the first of those reports must be made by 180 days from the date of the Order? That means federal agencies must first report by November 5, 2013, with subsequent reports made quarterly.

What we do know is that the Open Data Policy memo defines five major requirements:

1. Collect or create information in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities
2. Build information systems to support interoperability and information accessibility
3. Strengthen data management and release practices
4. Strengthen measures to ensure that privacy and confidentiality are fully protected and that data is properly secured
5. Incorporate new interoperability and openness requirements into core agency processes

These top-level requirements shouldn’t be anything which Federal agencies aren’t already doing. Of course, each top-level requirement contains sub-requirements and those are where the rubber meets the road. Four of these sub-requirements in particular are likely to be new activities for Federal agencies, so are worth highlighting here:

The First requirement, 1a, mandates the use of “machine-readable and open formats.” This means that information must be stored in a format which can be easily read by a computer without loss of meaning (machine-readable) and that the format should be public rather than proprietary (open formats).

The Second requirement, 1c, calls for the use of open licenses for released data sets. Open licensing of released data ensures that the data can be used with no restrictions on how it is transmitted, adapted, or otherwise used for either commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The Third requirement, 3b, mandates agencies to establish and maintain a public data listing. Specifically, agencies must host a www.[agency].gov/data URL which provides a listing of the datasets which could be made publicly available. This listing must be available in both human-readable (i.e., html) format and machine-readable format, in order to allow data.gov and other aggregators to discover agency data sets. The maintenance clause here is key. The listing must be maintained and updated over time to comply with the requirement. Additionally, the listing should not include just those data sets which are available but also those which could be made available. That means if your agency is working with a data but has not fully cleaned and stripped out PII, it should still be listed at your /data URL.

The Final requirement, 3c, requires agencies to engage with customers (i.e., the public) to “facilitate and prioritize data release.” This builds on requirement 3b to add a mechanism by which the public can provide feedback to the agency in question to help set the priorities for release of additional datasets, influence the formats in which data is released, or otherwise shape agency data release processes.

Big changes are underway for the practice of data management in the Federal sector. More data release and more collaboration with customers can only serve to increase the rate of change and open up new areas in which the government is “by the people” and “for the people.”

In subsequent posts in this series we’ll delve further into the Open Data mandate and explore possible solutions for implementing its requirements in Drupal.