May 24, 2009

Opening Up The Government's Filing Cabinets

WHEN VIVEK Kundra became the federal government’s chief information officer, he talked about the value of using standard off-the-shelf computer systems instead of the custom-built ones that government agencies are inclined to buy.

With the new government site Data.gov, Mr. Kundra is showing off the value of standard data formats as well.

The government, of course, has been publishing information on paper for centuries, and in electronic form for decades. The USA.gov portal has links to hundreds of Web sites the government runs about all of its agencies and programs.

But Data.gov is different. It is primarily for machines, not people, at least as a first step. It is a catalog of various sets of data from government agencies.

And the idea is to offer the data in one of several standardized formats, ranging from a simple text file that can be read by a spreadsheet program to the XML format widely used these days for the exchange of information between Web services. Other data is presented in formats that are meant to feed into mapping programs.

The value of this, of course, is that when information is made available this way, then anyone can analyze it or write a program to do so. The Sunlight Foundation is sponsoring "Apps for America 2.o,"a contest to find the best applications that use this data.

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