Government Eager (But Struggling) to Make Data Available to Businesses

The Obama administration is pressing agencies to unlock data sets to provide a foundation for startup businesses in sectors ranging from healthcare to transportation. But for now much of that data remains trapped in government systems.

By Kenneth Corbin
Fri, January 24, 2014

CIO — WASHINGTON -- The federal government has a spotty track record when it tries to play the role of venture capitalist and makes direct investments in specific startup companies. But the departments and agencies of the government can play an essential role in setting in motion the next great wave of private-sector innovation and economic growth simply by offering up access to the vast collections of data they have amassed, a senior White House official said yesterday

Government Big Data

In a keynote address at a conference marking Data Innovation Day, Nick Sinai, deputy U.S. CTO, talked up the Obama administration's efforts to bring more government information online, freely available to the public in a machine-readable format.

"Taxpayers have paid for this vast trove of government data, and wherever possible it should be available."
-- Nick Sinai, Deputy U.S. CTO

But that work has been slow going, with agencies reporting varying levels of progress in response to a White House directive to open up their data sets.

[Related: Government Healthcare IT Plans Hinge on Open Data]

"Too much of it is trapped in government systems, and even when it's technically available online it's often hard to find, understand and reuse. And a lot of it isn't even online," Sinai said.

For instance, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, has estimated that just 10 percent of its data is available on the Web, according to Sinai. Such low availability rates for non-sensitive data that holds significant commercial potential are unacceptable to the administration.

Giving Taxpayers Their Data

"Data's a valuable national asset. It should be open and available to the public wherever possible -- available to entrepreneurs, to scientists, to innovators inside and outside of government, instead of being trapped inside government systems," Sinai said. "Taxpayers have paid for this vast trove of government data, and wherever possible it should be available."

[Related: Obama Promotes New Open Government Initiative]

In that spirit, last May Obama issued an executive order directing departments and agencies to unlock more of their data and to adopt open, machine-readable formats as the default for newly created data sets. With that executive order, Obama was aiming to provide "fuel for private sector innovation and growth," Sinai said.

Favorite examples of companies -- and even industries -- that have been built on the back of government data draw from the work of the National Weather Service and GPS satellite operations. If all that information were still locked in the government vault, would there be a Weather Channel or companies like Garmin that sell navigational devices?

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