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Big week for open access to government information

You almost certainly have seen at least one story in the past week about “Open Government” and the release of new data. Reporters have slowly been picking up on a massive release of information spurred by President Obama’s Open Government Directive. (See: New ‘high value’ data posted to data.gov.)

Below are a few announcements and stories that you may find of interest.

But, in addition to all the data released this week was a new policy that will, potentially, affect usability of government information in the future. In the December 8, 2009 memo (Open Government Directive [pdf] Memorandum For The Heads Of Executive Departments And Agencies, M-10-06, Peter R. Orszag Director, Office of Management and Budget) that implemented the President’s Open Government Initiative, OMB specifically mandates open file formats.

To increase accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity, each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats.

And, OMB defines open formats as:

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 is big news for two reasons. First, it should lead the government away from proprietary formats which are hard to preserve, hard to re-use, and typically require either proprietary software or only operate on specific platforms, or both. Think: documents in ODF format rather than Microsoft Word. Second, the directive mandates formats “without restrictions [on] re-use.” Think: no DRM (and no licensing restrictions!).

As the ODF Alliance noted back in December when the OMB memo was released, much of government information is still released in “documents” which are not ideal for re-use of information even when the document formats are open. But, this is still an important, essential step:

Like it or not, government bureaucracies are still very document-centric and there is a lot of government “data” stored in documents, the challenge being how to provide easy access to this data.

…With today’s announcement, the Obama Administration has taken an important step on open government data and acknowledged the role open formats play in this regard. For document-centric governments, an open document format remains essential to delivering on this promise.
Obama Administration To Require Government Agencies to Make Information Available in Open Formats. ODF Alliance, December 08, 2009.

Open formats will help libraries that want to preserve digital government information by making it easier and less costly to do so.

Here are some of the announcements about releases of new government data:

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