Ending “Lame” Data

Aneesh Chopra gives an update on the Open Government Directive

This morning, Aneesh Chopra, who as the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer was charged with the development of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive, stopped by the Personal Democracy Forum, the annual confab of political technology enthusiasts, to update the attendees on the administration’s progress.

The Open Government Directive, you’ll remember, was birthed in a presidential memo issued on the first full day of the administration that directed Chopra’s office to draft a memo aimed at establishing “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”

“Today it is my pleasure to share with you a briefing about where we are on this long term goal to change to culture of Washington,” said Chopra.

With a string of examples—from a blue button on government Web sites that will make it easier to get health records to a NASA crowd-sourcing problem solving effort—Chopra’s talk focused more on new online applications and collaborative initiatives that fulfill aspects of the directive aimed at improving government efficiency and service, and less on efforts to encourage the online release of valuable bulk government data.

But not entirely. Chopra showcased the Community Health Data Initiative, which launched just two days ago as part of the Department of Health and Human Services’s response to the mandates of the Open Government Directive. The initiative’s data set will consist of public health statistics from all corners of the agency. HHS has encouraged people outside government to innovate around the data, and develop Web sites, apps, and research that can help people understand public health issues.

“Literally twenty-plus innovations, new applications, and services debuted for the American people at no cost to the taxpayer under one simple proposition: They were all built on information that had been previously been looked up within HHS and has now been liberated,” Chopra said.

It’s the sort of innovation that backers of the Open Government Directive have long argued would follow the release of previously unavailable government data sets, or the release of data in more useful, accessible formats.

During question period, Chopra spoke animatedly about his efforts to bring information to the public.

“Look: if there’s anything that I’m bullish on right now, it’s that I’m hungry for requests for information that you think has value,” said Chopra. “We absolutely want to make sure that information is easy to get.”

And Chopra emphasized his frustration with the work-arounds that innovators seeking to incorporate government data that was only released in unfriendly formats have been forced to use, like screen scraping.

“That’s lame,” said Chopra. “Let us make the information available in a machine readable format. Tell us where it’s valuable. That stuff is low marginal cost for us, and if it can expand value then so be it. I will run that play every day from Sunday… I will run them to the ground.”

Another audience question asked how standing laws like the Presidential Records Act and the Paperwork Reduction Act have complicated full-fledged White House adaptation of social media forms.

“That’s why we are not as bullish and not as all in on some of those tools. For example, in my office in the White House, I’m not allowed to access social media. So half the time, cool things are sent to me and I’m like ‘Oh, what’s this! Oh. Blocked. Thanks,’” snarked Chopra. “We have very strict rules about what we are allowed to do and how we are allowed to communicate. But we are working closely on easing up those rules.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.