Open data: accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity


Is sunlight the best disinfectant, as Supreme Court Justice Brandeis famously said?

This week in Washington, D.C., hundreds of experts have come together at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) to explore how data can also help citizens to make better decisions and underpin new economic growth. The IOGDC agenda is online, along with the presenters.

“Since the United Kingdom and United States movement started, lots of other countries have followed,” said Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France and Finland are all working on open data initiatives.

As he noted with a smile, the “beautiful race” between the U.S. and U.K. on the and websites was healthy for both countries, as open data practitioners were able to learn from one another and share ideas. That race was corked off when former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Tim Berners-Lee how the United Kingdom could make the best use of the Internet. When Berners-Lee responded to “put government data on the Web,” Brown assented, and was born.

Berners-Lee explored the principles of open linked data that underpin and open government. Specifically, he emphasized his support for open standards and formats over proprietary versions of either, inviting everyone present to join the W3C open government data working group.

Berners-Lee also reiterated his five star system” for open government data:

  • 1 Stars for putting data on the Web at all, with an open license. PDFs get 1 star.
  • 2 Stars if it’s machine-readable. Excel qualifies, though Berners-Lee prefers XML or CSVs.
  • 3 Stars for machine-readable, non-proprietary formats
  • 4 Stars if the data is converted into open linked data standards like RDF or SPARQL
  • 5 Stars when people have gone through the trouble of linking it

“The more transparency there is, there more likely there is to be external investment,” said Berners-Lee, highlighting the potential for open government data to make countries more attractive to the global electronic herd.

Will open data spread to more cities, states and countries, as HTML did in the 1990s? If the open standards and technologies that Berners-Lee advocates for are adopted, perhaps. “The Web spread quickly because it was distributed,” said Berners-Lee. “The fact that people could put up Web servers themselves without asking meant it spread more quickly without a centralized mandate.”

Putting open government data to work

Following Berners-Lee, federal CIO Vivek Kundra highlighted how far the open government data movement has come in the short time since President issued his open government memorandum in January 2009.

Kundra remarked that he’s “seeing more and more companies come online” in the 7 countries have embarked on an open government movement that involves democratizing data. He also reeled off a list of statistics to highlight the growth of the platfrom.

  • Within the boundaries of the United States, Kundra observed that 16 states and 9 cities have stood up open data platforms
  • 256 applications have now been developed on top of the platform
  • There are now 305,692 data sets available on
  • Since was launched in 2009, it has received 139 million hits.

The rapid growth of open government data initiatives globally suggests that there’s still more to come. “When I look at platform and where we are as a global community, we’re still in the very early days of what’s possible,” said Kundra.

He emphasized that releasing open data is not just a means of holding government accountable, focusing three lenses on its release:

  • Accountability, both inside of government and to citizens
  • Utility to citizens, where, as Kundra said, “data is used in the lives of everyday people to improve the decisions they makes or services they receive on a daily basis
  • Economic opportunities created as a results of open data.

Kundra pointed to a product recalls iPhone app created by a developer as an example of the second lens. The emerging ecosystem of healthcare apps is an example of both of the latter two facets, where open health data spurs better decisions and business growth.

“The simple act of opening up data has had a profound impact on the lives of ordinary people,” said Kundra, who pointed to the impact of the Veterans Administration’s Blue Button. Over 100,000 veterans have now downloaded their personal health records, which tundra said has stimulated innovation in blue button readers to connect systems from Google or Microsoft.

“I predict that we’ll have an industry around data curation and lightweight applications,” said Kundra. “The intersection of multiple data sets are where true value lies.” The question he posed to the audience is to consider how the government will move to towards an API-centric architecture that allows services to access data sets on a real-time basis.

When asked about that API strategy and the opportunity costs of pursuing it by open government advocate Harlan Yu, Kundra said that he follows an “80/20” rule when it comes to the government building apps vs third parties. “Do we want to be a grocery store or a restaurant when it comes to the platform and movement?” he asked.

As a means of answering that question, Jeanne Holm, the former chief knowledge architect at the NASA Jet Propulsion and current evangelist, announced a new open government open data community at that will host conversations about the future of the platform.

Kundra also made three announcements on Monday:

  • A new Harvard Business School case study on, available for free to government employees
  • A United States-United Kingdom partnership on open government, which will include an open government data camp later this week
  • The release of a concept of operations for, embedded below, which includes strategic goals for the site, an operation overview and a site architecture. Concept of Operations v 1.0

What do the two technology leaders see as a vision for success for open government data?

For Berners-Lee, it was to be able to directly access data from a dashboard on laptop, rather than indexes and catalogs on and He talked about accessing open government data that wasn’t just machine-readable or linked to other sets but directly accessed from his local machine, called through powerful Python scribts.

In contrast, Kundra talked about being able to go to a store like Brookstone and “in the same way you can buy alarm clocks with data in the weather channel,” how data from federal agencies had been employed to provision objects from everyday life.

To be fair, there’s a long way to go yet before that vision becomes reality. As Andrew Odewahn pointed out at Radar, earthquakes are HUGE on, consistently bringing in the most downloads, even ahead of those product recall data sets. While provisioning recurring visualization in the Popular Mechanics iPad App might be useful to the publisher, it’s also a reminder that the full vision for delivering utility to citizens through open data that Kundra hopes for hasn’t come to fruition as a result of – yet.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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