US government agencies must publish their information online in "open formats" under a new open government plan released by US President Barack Obama's administration.
Agencies, to the greatest extent that is practical, should publish their data online in an open format that can be "retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications," wrote Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OBM) in an 11-page memo released on Tuesday.
The Obama administration's Open Government Initiative also requires US agencies to preserve and maintain electronic information, and it calls on them to proactively release data using modern technologies, instead of waiting for Freedom of Information Act requests from the public.
"The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration are at the heart of this directive," Orszag wrote in a blog post. "Transparency promotes accountability. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise to government initiatives. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the federal government, across levels of government, and between the government and private institutions."
Federal agencies must set up open government Web pages within 60 days, publish three "high-value" data sets online within 45 days, and publish a plan on improving transparency within 120 days. Members of the Obama administration will create an open government dashboard designed to track open government progress within 60 days, Orszag said in the memo.
Several groups, including Microsoft, welcomed the initiative. Microsoft supports open formats such as OpenXML, and Microsoft's federal business is already working with federal agencies to publish data, says Susie Adams, CTO for Microsoft Federal.
Microsoft has recently released a product that helps organise data so it can be offered as a service, as well as one that monitors website customer feedback, and both may be useful for government agencies, Adams says.
However, the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a trade group often aligned with Microsoft, expressed concerns about the open format requirements. The requirement leaves a lot of "open questions", says Morgan Reed, executive director at ACT.
"Everyone agrees that the government should make information available in open formats whenever possible, but agencies should also have the flexibility to produce that information in multiple formats — open and proprietary — in order to meet the needs of all Americans, especially the accessibility community," he says. "The administration should also focus more attention on ensuring data is produced in machine parsable formats that will make that data more valuable to the community."
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, another tech trade group, welcomed the announcement.
"This initiative means people will have more information about their government in a timely, searchable format that can be accessed anywhere they have an Internet connection," CCIA President and CEO Ed Black is quoted as saying in a statement. "This plan can bring more democracy to the democratic process and represents hope of a new era between the government and those it governs."
However, the Obama administration continues to withhold information about an international trade agreement, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), focused on fighting software and other piracy, Black says. The secrecy around ACTA has led to concerns that the music and movie industries are trying to push through the agreement without public debate, he says.
"It is troubling that the spirit behind [the open government push] has yet to have more than a minimal impact on holdover matters from the last administration such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement," he says. "This is an example of the type of government decision-making dominated by big players in the backrooms that a true openness policy is intended to prevent."