A decade ago, President Barack Obama first stepped into the Oval office and mandated the Open Government Initiative with a memorandum calling for transparency, participation, and collaboration of information from the Federal Government to the public. Now if it’s hard to wrap your mind around the concept of government and transparency altogether, let alone the other two principles, you’re not alone. 

This is where Open Data, a school of thought that some information ought to be available to the public without cost or copyright restrictions, comes into discussion in the United States. Although not the first push for public access to information in the U.S., (see: Freedom of Information Act of 1966, Privacy Act Amendments of 1974, Open Government Act of 2007), the scale of data collected and made available online over the past decade is unprecedented.

So What Data Do They Have?

The datasets represent information managed from various departments across Federal agencies and also pulls in data from State Governments. You can find data on topics like Finance, Energy, Consumer, Health, Manufacturing, and the list goes on. There are currently over 250,000 datasets available and the catalog is updated regularly. Needless to say, they can get pretty specialized. 

What Does the Government use Data For?

As big data (data that is high in volume and velocity, diverse in variety, and exhaustive in scope) is constantly being complied, its analysis is utilized to guide decision-making and to create legislation for a variety of topics. The Open Data Act, which is the latest iteration of President Obama’s mandate from 2009, was newly put into law in 2018. It stems from the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 that strictly outlines how each Federal agency must use statistical evidence to base policy-making.

So the Open Government platform officially launched in 2011, and again, the Obama administration’s thought behind it was to provide transparency and institutionalize a culture of open government. (Of course, though, the datasets provided by the government must be anonymized so identity, attribute, or residual disclosure cannot take place and confidentiality can be preserved.) However, why go through the hassle of publishing thousands of datasets and not charge for it? The data they’re acquiring is generated by citizens and therefore should be made accessible to the people. If you follow the Open Data school of thought for a moment, since a good chunk of the information is of you and me, it belongs to us and therefore should be accessible to us.

There’s also the belief that it’s economically beneficial to level the playing field of information for greater competition in business and to ignite more robust innovation. You can choose which to believe. Whether you want to see if there are datasets that can provide valuable insight to give your startup an edge or just to browse through what’s collected from your region, the data is there for you to download.

How Do You Find It?

Data.gov is the website. Either search the catalogs by a keyword, or select by topic and explore what’s available under the “data” tab. You can add filters for specific needs like file format, location, or bureau.

What Can You Do With It?

Aligned with the original principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration, the site is built on open source applications and developed publicly on GitHub where you can contribute to the site or join onto ongoing projects and challenges. If you’re versed in the world of data science, add your voice by improving the code or by requesting data that may be missing. Even if you’re new to the tech scene, using real datasets offer added motivation that your practice is applicable to a topic or region you’re passionate about. 

These datasets, although not always perfect, can be tools to leverage technology to our benefit. Obama’s idea and implementation shifted the technology industry and has taken off to cities and countries around the world. A map representation of the world’s open data sites can be found on the Federal site and is truly remarkable — certainly an added notch to the legacy of our 44th President. It’s also eye-opening to see rankings based on the quality of open data portals across cities of the U.S. and countries around the world

The tools to hold governments accountable is at our fingertips, and now more than ever, information is power.