Future Tense

The Best Thing Obama’s Done This Month

His executive order to open government data is a really big deal.

President Obama

President Obama

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Long before steam engines and turbines carried us swiftly over the oceans, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve on a ship found something to do ashore: aggregate the data from shipping logs.

When Matthew Fontaine Maury started analyzing those logs and mapping them onto charts, he found previously invisible patterns in the data that showed patterns in weather, winds, and currents. In 1855, he published this knowledge in a book, The Physical Geography of the Sea.

He also made a crucial decision for navigators around the world: After he collected the data, Maury then shipped them to anyone who wanted them, and he asked for contributions in return. Over time, it became a worldwide project. Maury saw great value in publishing the data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.” Notably, the Secretaries of the Navy and Congress agreed that funding such scientific data collection and publication was valuable to naval and commercial concerns, formally establishing the U.S. Naval Observatory and making Maury its first superintendent. Not long afterward, the United States created standards for reporting the meteorological data that guided mariners in their travel around the world.*

In many ways, Maury’s work and the government’s codification and release of these data set the stage for the historic moment we find ourselves in. Around the world, people are still using government weather data when they travel, though few consult nautical charts. Instead, they tap into the growing number of devices and services that make open data more actionable.

For instance, think about how you use the mapping apps on an iPhone or Android device. That glowing blue dot places you in time and space, enabling you to know not only where you are but how to get somewhere else. In more than 450 cities around the world, when you look for mass transit options, the routes and even departure times for the next train or bus show up on that interactive map as well.

That glowing blue dot exists because of a series of executive decisions made by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who decided to progressively open up the data created by the satellites in the Global Positioning System to civilian use, enabling a huge number of location-based technologies to make their way into the palms of citizens around the world.

Now, we may see even more life-changing technologies as a result of open government data. Last week, the White House released an executive order that makes “open and machine readable” the new default for the release of government information. Although people who care about open data were generally quite excited, the news barely made an impression on the general public. But it should: This is perhaps the biggest step forward to date in making government data—that information your tax dollars pay for—accessible for citizens, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others.

President Barack Obama announced the order on a trip to Austin, Texas, where he met the founder of StormPulse, a startup that uses weather data for risk analysis. The White House also published a memorandum that established a framework to institutionalize the treatment of government information as an asset. “This kind of innovation and ingenuity has the potential to transform the way we do almost everything,” said Obama.

This isn’t the first time the nation has heard this kind of rhetoric or initiative, although it was by far the most prominent mention by the president to date. In 2009, the federal government launched Data.gov as a platform for open data for civic services and economic reuse. In the years since, dozens of other national and state governments have launched their own open data platforms. From health information to consumer finance, government data are slowly making their way out of file cabinets and mainframes into forms through which they can be put to good use. Many of these data are of fundamental interest to citizens, from the quality of the food we eat to the efficiency of our appliances to the safety of the cars we drive. During Hurricane Sandy, open government data feeds became critical infrastructure, feeding into crisis centers and media maps that amplify them to millions of citizens searching for accurate, actionable information.

While all those efforts laid a foundation, the new executive order is at once more legally binding and specific. It sends a clear statement from the top that open and machine-readable should be the default for government information. The White House has also, critically, taken steps to operationalize these open data principles by:

  • Mandating that when an agency procures a new computer or system that collects data, those data must be exportable. That won’t address digitizing existing government documents and data but will create a default setting going forward.
  • Planning to relaunch data.gov in a format compatible with dozens of other open-data platforms around the world.
  • Requiring agencies to catalog what data they have. Understanding what you have is fundamental to managing information as an asset, although an open data policy that requires creating and maintaining an enterprise data inventory won’t be without cost. Creating a public list of agency data assets based upon audits is one of the most important aspects of the new open data policy.

With this executive order, the president and his advisers have focused on using open data for entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery. This executive order, associated tools, and policy won’t in and of themselves be enough to achieve the administration’s goals, at least with respect to jobs: They’ll need entrepreneurs, developers, and venture capitalists to put the open data to use. Governments looking for economic return on investment must focus on open data with business value, according to research from Deloitte U.K.

Government release of health, energy, education, transit, and safety data all hold significant economic potential. As is the case with GPS and weather data, however, government will have to ensure that data remains available to businesses founded upon it.

But advocates of open data also point to another area with great potential: transparency. With Data.gov, the Obama administration had promised to make information available so citizens could keep an eye on things. But some experts in this space are worried that with the emphasis on innovation and economic growth, the transparency element will be forgotten. The nation’s media relies upon Freedom of Information requests and confidential sources, not Data.gov. Jim Harper, director of information studies at the Cato Institute, praised President Obama’s new open data policy but questioned its relationship to government transparency. He writes:

“Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. 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.”

These are important questions that the Obama administration must address in the months ahead, although it is, admittedly, a little busy this week. Still, the order has the potential to revolutionize industries, giving people better tools to navigate the world. While the impact of open government data on democracy depends on functional institutions, the rule of law, political agency, and press freedom, its impact on the economy could measure in the hundreds of billions over time.

“This memorandum is the most significant advance in information policies by the federal government since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act,” said open government advocate Carl Malamud, president of PublicResource.Org. Government data is a new kind of natural resource that can now be tapped and applied to the public good.

Correction, May 20, 2013: This article originally stated that President John Quincy Adams agreed with Maury on the importance of collecting and publishing astronomical data. It also suggested that the Naval Observatory was endowed after the publication of Maury’s book in 1855. While Adams signed a bill to create a national observatory before leaving office in 1829, it wasn’t until 1830 that a “Depot of Charts and Instruments” was created by the Secretary of the Navy. This eventually became the U.S. Naval Observatory, a decade later. The institution was funded by Congress in 1842, in no small part due to the efforts of President John Quincy Adams, who served for nearly two decades in Congress after he left the White House. Adams was perhaps the observatory’s strongest contemporary political supporter and spent considerable time there with Maury, looking up at the stars. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.