Government as Data Source

A provocative new article in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology titled “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” (PDF) makes the proposal that the federal government should abandon their attempt to create public websites, and focus almost entirely on providing data in standard formats for use by private websites. The article points out greater access to data is supported by all three leading presidential candidates, perhaps most strongly by Barack Obama who says on his website he’ll seek to make “government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities.” (Via TechPresident and Read Write Web)

This argument can be extended to the local government level. At Rethink College Park, the single most important ingredient to our success was government information. However, local government planners generally view their jobs as analyzing proposals for the benefit of elected officials, and providing data to the public is relegated to a secondary role. The City of College Park’s website rarely presented timely development information (almost never the valuable renderings, plans, and maps presented to the city council that we were interested in) and the Prince George’s County Planning Board website deletes their online data after six months. Let me repeat: in a world where is charging $.15 per gigabyte per month for data storage, Prince George’s County (population 828,770) does not archive planning board documents older than six months.

DC government has been a leader in this area, offering dozens of data feeds through their CapStat program, and the neighborhood website JDLand has probably been the most successful at scraping them for neighborhood-specific data. However, as Jon Udell pointed out two years ago, the hoped-for flowering of DC mashups has been slow to materialize, the only notable ones being JDLand and CrimeinDC. While I agree with the article authors’ emphasis on data availability and found data access to be an obstacle to advocating for smart growth and improved citizen participation, I’m not willing to write off government work on the web. One of the things I’ll describe in upcoming posts is extensive history of government planners going to the public to both conduct education and solicit input, two things the web is ideally suited to do. Despite their slow pace of change, I think there’s plenty of space for governments that want to try more innovative websites. After all, as one commenter points out, citizens still turn to government websites first to find the data they need.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I think making data publicly available should be a central focus of government at all levels; what better way is there to shine some light on the very darkest recesses of bureaucracy? Unfortunately making this a priority costs money, governments aren’t used to doing it, and too few people right now are clambering at the gates to get the information.

    I don’t generally like the idea of taking what should be free public data and passing it off to private vendors (who would then turn around and sell it to the public)—I don’t like it at all—but it may be preferable to the status quo wherein the lion’s share of data goes entirely unreleased.

  2. I’d use it if I knew how and how to cull it. Unfortunately my talents are limited for the moment.
    I’d love to make a mash-up of permits, new property sales, crime, etc, it’s just that the extra step needed to do so, is difficult for me.
    It’s just better when the city has a format that allows citizens to find what they need from the city easy.

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