White House to release new gov't data collections

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2009 6:49 PM

The White House on Tuesday instructed every federal agency to publish before the end of January at least three collections of "high value" government data on the Internet that never have been previously disclosed, an ambitious order to make the administration as transparent as President Barack Obama had promised it would be.

It was not immediately clear what types of information the government will make newly available under Tuesday's order. It said the material must increase accountability, improve the public's understanding about the agency's mission, create economic opportunities or be in high demand by the public.

The directive applies to each of the government's 15 departments and four agencies with Cabinet-level status.

Researchers and data experts speculated about what might be published and compared lists of their most-wanted records.

"As far as what these sets are going to be, we're trying to figure that out," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, an open government group. Allison praised the administration's effort.

Allison noted that whatever is disclosed would necessarily already exist on government computers in data form, not in collections of paper documents, because of the quick deadline the administration set for itself.

"Nobody is going to pull together thousands of pages and put them in a database within 45 days," he said.

The White House also ordered each federal agency to:

_Create a Web page within 60 days describing its activities related to open government.

_Distribute useful information without waiting for requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

_Take steps to reduce backlogs of requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act by 10 percent annually.

_Consider how agencies can use contests and prizes to find new ways for employees to improve open government.

Open government advocates praised the plan.

"We've been saying the agencies should be listening to what the public asks for," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive, a private organization that seeks disclosure of government secrets.

All the new data collections will be added to the government's Web site, data.gov. It offers more than 1,000 sets of data, but some are merely archived lists of government press releases. Others include lists of toxic chemical amounts released in each U.S. state and territory, tax-exempt organizations, earthquakes, food or toy recalls, immigration data, petroleum prices, Treasury bill rates and more.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the directive will make the government more accountable to the public _ with access to government data that "for too long has been shielded from view by excessive secrecy and outdated technologies."

Fuchs, the lawyer for the National Security Archive, wondered whether the White House will seriously monitor the agencies' activities and whether the public will care enough to point out when agencies aren't following the rule.

Required to release the three new data sets are the departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Developmentm Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the Council of Economic Advisers.

The wish list by open government advocates is extensive.

Among the desired items: analysis by the government's national security apparatus of foreign broadcasts around the globe _ a vital, unclassified source of knowledge about foreign affairs, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. The analyses are produced by the Open Source Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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On the Net:

The directive: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/assets/memoranda_2010/m10-06.pdf

List of all collections currently available on data.gov: http://www.data.gov/details/92