Open data movement asks, if you open it, who will come?

Publishing data to comply with the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive is posing challenges and opportunities on many fronts, panelists said during a discussion at FOSE in Washington, D.C. Tuesday. Chief among the challenges are releasing data sets that are meaningful, and developing standards that make them easy to use.

In a session entitled, “Putting Government Data on the Web: It sounds like a great idea. Now, how do we do it?” the General Services Administration’s Rachel Flagg said the biggest change for government IT and web content professionals is having to think about the end-users, instead of their fellow government employees.

“The mentality that ‘If you build it, they will come’ doesn’t work,” she said. “They won’t come unless it matters.”

Ms. Flagg, who is a Web Content Manager at GSA and chair of the Federal Web Managers Council, struck a theme echoed by the other panelists, saying that data needs to be published in a findable, understandable, relevant and trustworthy manner. The Web Council is comprised of senior web managers from across the federal government, focused on developing best practices and improving the online delivery of U.S. Government information and services.

Joining Ms. Flagg were two representatives from the World Wide Web Coalition (W3C), who have focused on Web and data standards since the early days of the Internet, and a consultant from the United Kingdom-based FutureGov. All three speakers urged government attendees to think about data standards that were interoperable and would lend itself to better documentation.

Daniel Bennett, Chief Technology Officer of the eCitizen Foundation and an invited expert of the W3C’s eGov Interest Group, argued that HTML was an overlooked and under utilized data standard for open data. He argued HTML was, “both human readable and machine process-able.” He and fellow W3C-er Sandro Hawke spoke on the promise of query language like SPARQL and RDFa in developing linked data, also known as the Semantic Web.

Finally, Dominic Campbell, from the UK-based FutureGov Consultancy, spoke about what his country’s government was doing to make data available to the public. He said that while President Obama helped make transparency and data openness a “sexy” and sought after political issue, the UK government had mainly used the concept of open data within its bureaucratic ranks. More recently, though, the UK asked the public to “show us a better way,” and has taken a queue from the US and just made everything (within reason) available for public use.

A few key differentiators, Campbell says, about the UK data.gov effort is its use of SPARQL query language and a bottom-up wave of open data initiatives coming from local councils and villages. A website called Openly Local has opened up data for over 90 local authorities, including more than 270,900 pieces of data.

Despite these and other challenges or differences, the group was optimistic about where the future of government and citizen collaboration could lead.

“The new era of open gov is turning everything on its head,” Ms. Flagg said.

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