Obama is going to tell people how the White House is organized

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

Stores of government data should soon become more easily accessible to the public, according to a new executive order signed by President Barack Obama on Thursday.

The executive order, “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” called for  the “default state of new and modernized government information resources shall be open and machine readable.”

Machine-readable formats are data formats that can be easily understood by computers, such as XML or StratML.

Data in these formats can then be used by businesses, researchers, entrepreneurs, law enforcement, regulators, transparency groups and journalists.

The order, Obama said, was to “promote continued job growth, government efficiency, and the social good that can be gained from opening government data to the public[.]”

“Government information shall be managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable,” Obama said.

“In making this the new default state, executive departments and agencies shall ensure that they safeguard individual privacy, confidentiality, and national security,” he added.

The order, however, does not “compel or authorize the disclosure of privileged information, law enforcement information, national security information, personal information, or information the disclosure of which is prohibited by law.”

The executive order was expected: Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer, announced in early January that the administration planned to issue an order that would mandate consistent data formats across the federal government.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released the administration’s Open Data Policy on Thursday in conjunction with the Obama’s open data executive order.

Six days prior to the signing of the executive order, The Daily Caller reported on the lack of an official government list of programs and agencies, as well as the lack of consistent data standards across the government.

The order was applauded by tech industry representatives like TechAmerica and the Data Transparency Coalition. Technology oriented publications such as GigaOmMashable and TechCrunch have already noted how the executive order would be a boon to mobile app developers.

Jim Harper — director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute — has been advocating for machine-readable government organization charts for several years, and welcomed the administration’s open data efforts.

Harper expressed concern, however, that the order’s focus on data standards was less helpful toward the transparency efforts called for by Obama in 2008.

“Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority,” Harper wrote in a blog post.

“They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data,” he said.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, stated that the new executive order sets the government on a path of data transparency similar to the vision layed out by the Sunlight Foundation “about a year ago.”

“By requiring agencies to publicly list all their data that could be made public, the president is not just reaffirming that decisions about disclosure should be based on the public interest, he’s also giving the public (and Congress) tools to enforce them,” Wonderlich wrote.

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, told The Daily Caller that the open data definition provided in the OMB’s Open Data Policy “is a necessary and admirable start.”

“Frankly, that took some courage and it should be applauded because the open data definition will allow us to evaluate officially whether federal data sets are open are not,” Hollister said.

“Of course, we believe that many of the most valuable and most consequential data sets are not open,” he added, referring to most federal spending and public financial regulatory data. “But without this definition, and without this statement from the administration, it would be much more difficult to bring this message.”

He applauded the Administration, stating that the definition will form the basis for much of his coalition’s future work.

Legislative efforts to modernize federal government data transparency are also underway.

On May 16, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is hosting a demonstration day for technology companies with transparency-enabling technologies to showcase their work for Congress and the media.

On May 22, the House Administration Committee is hosting a conference for legislative branch agencies to discuss data transparency.

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