New players may change rules of government data game

Advocacy groups, individuals may take government raw data and build their own Web sites

Government Web managers beware: You might have some competition from advocacy groups and the general public. They might take your raw data feeds and build a site that could even be more alluring than your own.


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When the Office of Management and Budget announced last spring that it would set up a repository of government data feeds, called Data.gov, a number of other sites appeared aiming to duplicate or even improve on the work that the General Services Administration was doing to create the service. For instance, Microsoft started the Open Government Data Initiative, which would be a free repository for government data that others could access through its Azure cloud-computing service.

Earlier this month, the Sunlight Foundation's Sunlight Labs announced plans to launch its own repository of government data feeds, called the National Data Catalog. Sunlight Labs Director Clay Johnson noted some of the shortcomings of the initial launch of Data.gov: It had no data from the legislative or judicial branches, and it lacked tools for community-based documentation and collaboration.

"Because of politics and scale, there’s only so much the government is going to be able to do," Johnson wrote in a blog posting announcing the Sunlight project. “There are legal hurdles and boundaries the government can’t cross that we can.”

Even before Data.gov went live, others were mimicking the concept. In his spare time, programmer Robert Loftin built USGovXML.com, which has dozens of data feeds from multiple agencies. "USGovXML was created as an outgrowth of the frustration of not being able to find a single place on the Internet that listed publicly available Web services provided by the U.S. government," Loftin wrote on the Web site.

Another site that has seen some competition is Regulations.gov, which the Environmental Protection Agency manages. Jerry Brito, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, developed what he calls an easy-to-use alternative to Regulations.gov called OpenRegs.com. Visitors to that site can read proposed regulations and discuss them in a user forum — a feature the current iteration of Regulations.gov doesn't offer.

"My motivation has been to prod EPA…to upgrade its site as much as to make regulatory data more accessible to the public," Brito said.

The strategy seems to be working: The EPA site is undergoing a redesign later this summer, and the managers are considering the use of a discussion forum. They are also basing their work on Brito's tutorial about government regulations, he said.

Such duplication of effort might not be a bad thing. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has said that by making agency data available, the government could enlist the public in helping to solve our country's most pressing problems. Sites like OpenRegs.com and USGovXML.com are examples of how people are lending a hand.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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