Save the Data!

picture of US flagAs someone who believes strongly in "Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source" philosophies, I was incredibly frustrated to hear that budget cuts are likely to cause the shutdown of a group of US federal government websites related to transparency, financial oversight/accountability, and public data sharing.  The Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman has written a great initial blog post about this, which was later followed up by a very thorough analysis from Alex Howard on GovFresh. 

I am and have been a huge supporter of Data.gov, the primary public portal for accessing freely available, cataloged US government data.  At the time of this writing, data.gov hosts almost 380,000 cataloged datasets supplied by over 170 US government agencies and departments.  Over 1,000 web-based applications for analysis and visualization are available on the site, a full quarter of which have been developed and contributed by citizens in the data.gov user community.  Specialized sub-portals on the site connect community members with shared interests, such as K-12 educators, public health professionals, and application developers.  Topical resource collections provide data and information about timely issues - today's highlighted links include the RadNet radiation incident monitoring system and a feed of earthquakes recorded by the US Geological Survey in the past week.  All of this is scheduled to be shut down this summer unless funding is restored!

From the Data.gov site:

A primary goal of Data.gov is to improve access to Federal data and expand creative use of those data beyond the walls of government by encouraging innovative ideas (e.g., web applications). Data.gov strives to make government more transparent and is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. The openness derived from Data.gov will strengthen our Nation's democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Strengthen American democracy?  Promote government efficiency and effectiveness?  Fantastic goals, especially at a relatively modest price tag of around $34 million.  I'm going to resist the obvious analogies comparing that price tag to the cost of a cruise missile, especially considering that the relevant Department of Defense data, unsurprisingly, isn't available yet on Data.gov.  I'm also going to resist wondering how much political motivation might be involved in a decision to gut one of the best vehicles for goverment transparency and accountability ever implemented.

Americans are fortunate that, unlike many other countries, the people of the United States "own" data collected and compiled by our government (without getting into obvious exceptions for national security, personal privacy, etc.).  In Canada, for instance, the Crown officially "owns" government data, which is often sold back to the people whose taxes financed its collection.  Databases of postal code regions that are freely available in the US cost thousands of dollars to purchase.  UK citizens have to pay to download many detailed maps and geospatial data collections from the Ordnance Survey.

There may not be a specific constitutional right entitling citizens to a government-financed Web 2.0 dataset and mashup repository -- yet -- but this data is vitally important to our people, our communities, and our nation and the federal government has a duty to provide it.

The Sunlight Foundation (naturally :-) is taking the lead on an awareness campaign to combat these cuts called "Save the Data!"  Check it out and get involved - time is of the essence!