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NASA catches heat for data presentation

How much must an agency prepare its raw data before posting it for public consumption? This is the question administrators must keep in mind, especially when the dataset may be a source of controversy.

Over the past few days, NASA has been heavily criticized by Congress and the press for posting results of an airline safety study in a deliberately obscure fashion.

"NASA did not provide documentation on how to use its data, nor did it provide keys to unlock the cryptic codes used in the dataset," the Associated Press charged.

AP also criticized the agency for releasing the data in PDF, rather than on an Excel spreadsheet, which would made the voluminous set of numbers easier to export for further analysis.

(Though if the numbers were posted in Excel, wouldn't NASA get criticized for releasing data in a proprietary format?)

NASA administrator, Michael Griffin said in a press conference that the agency had no plans to analyze the raw data'which was collected as an experimental in collection techniques'but rather just make it available to flight experts.

Griffin also said that it probably did not contain any data that "the traveling public would care about or ought to care about," the Washington Post reported.

The material contained comments alluding to pilot fatigue, potential mid-air collisions and overwhelmed air traffic control facilities.

So, how much preparation should an agency undertake when preparing data that will go online?

Government transparency is generally a desirable thing, but what value is there to posting inscrutable data that would only lead to questions and even charges of malfeasance? Hiding data is no answer either, but many agencies just may not have the resources to make all their data more easily understood.

Sounds like some ground rules'or a well-crafted set of disclaimers'should be put in place.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Jan 02, 2008 at 9:39 AM


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Reader Comments

Fri, Jan 4, 2008 Pat Spray 20850

NASA could have released the data in .csv format which would have enabled users to import the file using a variety of spreadsheet and database applications.

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