The idea of positioning the government's big data sets as a platform for outside innovation reflects the understanding that those assets, with their vast size and scope, hold enormous value that the departments and agencies will never be able to fully realize on their own.
And it's not without precedent. Advocates of opening more data to the public point to the commercial successes that were built off the government's Global Positioning System and the weather data maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As an example, Szykman suggested that if more data from the Commerce and Labor departments were made available in a machine-readable format and with accompanying APIs, a Website advertising homes for sale could make its listings searchable by the neighborhood's median income, unemployment rates and other variables, enabling house hunters to seek out the areas where they might enjoy the best career prospects. An interesting idea, but certainly not one that the government would produce on its own, particularly in a time when agencies are operating under perpetual budget constraints.
"The government has a mission. The government has resources, which are limited. And the government has ideas, and sometimes the ideas that the government has in terms of what can be done with this data goes beyond what we can do with resources, and sometimes the ideas themselves are limited in the sense that we don't pretend that we've cornered the market on good ideas and there are people in the private sector — individual citizens and companies — that can come up with new ways of using this data that may lead to new innovation, new uses that provide value. Sharing more of our data, the benefit from doing that is not just the transparency issue. It's really creating new ways in which the data that we produce and disseminate can be used by others in ways that we may not have anticipated or may not be pursuing within our existing resources."
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