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Obama Open Government Directive is Finally Out. And It's Pretty Good.

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, December 8 2009

The White House has just released its Open Government Directive, long-awaited by transparency and "government 2.0" advocates, and at first glance, the meat on the bone looks pretty juicy. (Or, if you prefer a vegan metaphor, the sauce on the seitan looks pretty, um, creamy?) Nancy's got a sharp and detailed write-up here, and since I've been stuck in a meeting all day, I'm only going to add one additional wrinkle on a topic close to my heart that I think is worth highlighting, nay, hailing.

To me, one of the most important parts of the new directive is in this paragraph, in the section on "Publishing Government Information Online":

To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions, agencies should publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information.

This simple paragraph goes a long way toward embracing the Eight Principles for Open Government Data hammered out exactly two years ago, December 7-8, in Sebastopol, California, at a weekend retreat hosted by Tim O'Reilly and Carl Malamud (and supported, full disclosure, by the Sunlight Foundation, Google and Yahoo--agenda and participant list here). Here's the list:

Government data shall be considered open if it is made public in a way that complies with the principles below:

1. Complete
All public data is made available. Public data is data that is not subject to valid privacy, security or privilege limitations.

2. Primary
Data is as collected at the source, with the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms.

3. Timely
Data is made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.

4. Accessible
Data is available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes.

5. Machine processable
Data is reasonably structured to allow automated processing.

6. Non-discriminatory
Data is available to anyone, with no requirement of registration.

7. Non-proprietary
Data is available in a format over which no entity has exclusive control.

8. License-free
Data is not subject to any copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret regulation. Reasonable privacy, security and privilege restrictions may be allowed.

Compliance must be reviewable.

To my ear, the directive's language covers principles #4, #5, #6, #7 and #8 pretty well (though you could probably hide a truck under "subject to valid restrictions"). What's missing are guarantees of completeness, granularity and timeliness. All of which are crucial. [UPDATE: Josh Tauberer of GovTrack.us, an invaluable data resource, has a more detailed analysis of the OGD here. He notes that the appendix to the document does call on agencies to release data in as granular a form as possible, something I had missed, but also points out several other concerns that are need fixing.]

Given how hard it is to change how government works, it's tempting to say that 5/8 of a loaf is better than none, but the White House shouldn't be allowed to take a victory lap. For all of President Obama's vaunted commitment to the issue of improving government transparency, it's lamentable that he couldn't find time in his schedule to make this announcement himself. It's also unfortunate that the staffers who really made this directive happen--people like Deputy CTO Beth Noveck and White House counsel Norm Eisen--work with modest staff support and little visibility. If the White House wants to earn the mantle of "change" on its inspiring promises of openness, participation and collaboration, it still needs to do a lot more.