By Russell Ruggiero, Ranjeeth Kumar Thunga, and Matthew Harang
The Open Government Data Act was signed into law on January 14, 2019. The primary focus of this new initiative is for Federal Agencies to publish all of their information as open data (using standardized, non-proprietary formats). The main objective of this short piece is to help explain how the Open Government Data Act addresses important topics that include using standardized non-proprietary formats, transparency, and how open-standards play into the overall equation.
Why is Using Standardized, Non-Proprietary Formats Important?
The value of adopting standardized, non-proprietary data formats is hard to overestimate. However, it takes a broader vision to be able to grasp the true value of why to go through the process of incorporating such formats, and the benefits such formats can provide. Below are seven key reasons to consider incorporating, as well as contributing, to such standards.
1. Precise Communication – The cornerstone of communication necessitates that two or more humans, and/or machines, are actually speaking the same language. With standardized, non-proprietary formats, we can ensure that all parties are on the same page and all technologies are truly interoperating, preventing miscommunication and misunderstanding that arise from differing representations of data.
2. Efficient Work – By using standard formats, we save time and energy by focusing our attention on the data itself, rather than how to best represent or capture it. No need to reinvent the wheel – we can quickly proceed with subsequent steps, taking advantage of the work that’s already been done in fleshing out the appropriate ontological frameworks for us to use.
3. Preexisting Ecosystem – Tools, methodologies, and expertise already exist around preexisting data standards. By leveraging non-proprietary standards, we have the opportunity to also leverage resources that have been developed around such standards.
4. Cooperative problem-solving – To think and operate beyond the myopic lens of just ourselves invites us to perceive problems, and their corresponding solutions, not just in terms of what we can do, but in terms of how we can work together as a community to address challenges bigger than those we alone could tackle.
5. More Data, More Validation – Standard frameworks naturally lead to more accessible and available data. With more data available, we are opening up more of our processes to validation and verification of their efficacy. This ensures that these processes, as well as our institutions, are operating at their full potential.
6. Self-Reflection – Standard frameworks help us reflect on our own data collection. We are taking advantage of a feedback loop that informs us of what data points we might also need to include and consider in our own work, through the collective wisdom invested in the creation and development of the standards we are using.
7. Expand our Influence – When we use as well as contribute to the ongoing development of standard frameworks, we can exert greater leverage in the world at large. Our value as an individual or organization, which might have been relegated to a small sphere of influence, could instead translate and be magnified into one of much greater scale.
There’s no doubt using data standards might initially appear to challenge our conventional notions of proprietorship and control. The question however we must ultimately ask ourselves is what actually is ours to define and what about what we are capturing actually transcends us? By being open to a bigger picture, we might actually find such formats not just serve our needs better but allow us to paint on a much larger canvas than would have otherwise been possible, serving and connecting with a much greater slice of humanity in the process.
Why is Transparency Important?
The value of transparency is central to the effectiveness of a democratic republic. Citizens will benefit from the Open Government Data act, simply for the fact that is further breaks down information barriers between federal agencies and the public which it serves. In recent years, there have been many questions broached regarding the inner workings of the government, in regards to government spending, as well as specifics of involvement with corporations and other entities. With the current law in place, many of those questions will be answered with more ease.
The prevalence of the internet has caused an information overload in society, for better and for worse. Every piece of information one can imagine is available at one’s fingertips, at any time. The problem has become that there is a lot of misinformation mixed in, and it often impossible to distinguish truth from lies online. For this reason, real verifiable sources have become invaluable. In many ways, it has become more difficult to hide the truth due to the internet and social media, however, it can be just as easy to cover the truth or mask it through the same means. For this reason, transparency has become more important than ever. The public relies on real, accurate information, distinguished from “fake news” to make informed decisions about politics, policy and social issues. The Open Data act ensures that accurate information is coming directly from the source.
The fact is that government corruption is a global problem, and the United States is not immune. Politicians and policymakers alike are constantly involved in back door deals, illegal transactions, and even legal deals that blur the lines of ethics. Before the internet, it was much easier to hide such actions from the public, because even when discovered, the news would only spread locally. With the ever-increasing usage of social media outlets, news of such wrongdoings spreads like wildfires. The Open Government Data act ensures that these government entities will continue to be held accountable for their actions. It ensures that they will act with discretion, knowing that ever action will be under the scrutiny of watching eyes. The law enables citizens to have the assurance that everything done behind closed doors can come to light, if need be. No actions can be hidden from public view, nor swept under the rug “to protect the feebleminded.” This is an important step to ensure accountability at all levels, and due provide a method of deterrence of the abuse of power.
Why are Open-Standards Important?
The implementation of the Open Government Data Act will require a forward thinking mindset which uses building block technologies, along with an innovative group of public and private sector solutions, in such a way as to foster a truly agnostic Federal ecosystem. Hence, if we focus on the principal goal of “using standardized, non-proprietary formats” at face value then open-standards will play a crucial role in moving the Open Government Data Act from a vision to a reality. Accordingly, we should look to organizations such as W3C, OASIS, IETF, AIIM, and ISO for guidance regarding the direction of both current and emerging open-standards. It is important to note that these organizations encourage a “world-wide” perspective regarding deployment, and one that is not encumbered nor predicated by physical boarders. In effect, this pragmatic and pliable approach allows for accepted open-standards to be leveraged across the globe. It means moving away from proprietary technologies that are most often “vendor specific” to a true agnostic platform that will allow for a modernistic and versatile “plug-and-play” implementation methodology.
As a result, there is a real need to agree on open-standards that in fact foster seamless bidirectional and unidirectional information flow between all interested parties. We must then try to envision Federal Agencies actually agreeing on reducing the number of prime technologies used to help streamline the ecosystem system. Using standardized, non-proprietary formats could also shift important valuable resources away from supporting a myriad of redundant and, or antiquated systems, to the implementation of current and future “agnostic” technologies to help push the communications envelope. Consequently, this positive development would in effect enable these entities to create an infrastructure that could better deal with the day-to-day operations, along with improving the response to manmade (e.g., terrorist attacks, oil spills, etc.) or natural (e.g., hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, etc.) catastrophic events. Because of the sheer magnitude and number of recent catastrophic events, using standardized, non-proprietary formats should be a priority and not an afterthought regarding the implementation of the Open Government Data Act. On that note, how will emerging relevant open-standards such as Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL) blend into to mix?
If properly implemented, the Open Government Data Act will usher in a new era regarding how data is shared not only among Federal Agencies, but also to the public. Information Technology has currently evolved to the point that a shift away from proprietary to standardized formats is indeed possible. Bottom line, the result will be greater transparency, along with improved overall efficiency. Another positive benefit that we can expect, and not to be overlooked from this new initiative, will be the many important innovations hatched by the private sector. All in all, implementation the Open Government Data Act could be looked at as a daunting challenge, but it could also be viewed as a great opportunity to improve the Federal ecosystem.
Key to links:
World Wide Web consortium (W3C) www.w3.org
Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) www.oasis-open.org
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) www.ietf.org
Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) www.aiim.org
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) www.iso.org
Extensible Markup Language (XML) http://www.w3.org/XML/
Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL) https://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_home.php?wg_abbrev=emergency