Good Data: The Foundation of Open Government

It is not often one gets excited over a dry, hard-to-understand government memorandum, but the newly released executive order, Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, and its accompanying memorandum are grounds for applause. The open data and transparency community, both in Washington and internationally, have been quick to give much deserved praise for this effort to make U.S. government data truly open and accessible.

Led by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, this policy makes open government and transparency core aspirations of the administration. It contains specific steps for agencies, including 1) making data readily accessible and useable, 2) using common, open standards; 3) modernizing information systems; 4) sharing best practices; and 5) reporting progress. As characterized by the Sunlight Foundation, the policy “signals a new era for open data in our government”.

This new policy applies to all executive agencies, with some exceptions for national security systems. For those of us focused on foreign assistance, however, the question is what it will mean for aid information – and more importantly – for improving our aid effectiveness?

The quick answer is quite a bit. If these approaches are adopted and implemented rigorously by U.S. agencies administering foreign assistance, it could pave the way for a revolution in the way aid information is shared and used throughout the delivery chain. Overall, this new policy strengthens the chances of the U.S. government delivering on its commitment to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which U.S. agencies are beginning to implement, but whose progress has been very slow. The Office of Management and Budget Bulletin, published in October 2012, made some important steps forward for U.S. reporting on foreign assistance. By comparison, the executive order is a leap forward. Why? Here are some highlights:

For the first time, data will have to be in “open and machine-readable formats”, such as XML, the format that IATI uses. This is hugely important for ensuring that the data is as accessible as possible for all potential users. To date, the U.S. has only published partial foreign assistance data from two U.S. agencies – the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation – in the machine-readable IATI XML format, so the new executive order should provide a strong impetus to kick-start progress in other agencies. The importance of machine-readable formats will also be reflected in how donor agencies perform in this year’s 2013 Aid Transparency Index. Data that complies with the IATI standard – in machine-readable, XML format – will be deemed most transparent, as recognized by the U.S. commitment to this internationally comparable data standard.

Agencies now have to support “downstream” users and systems, paying attention to how our own systems maximize information interoperability and accessibility. This means that U.S. systems need to take into account other complementary initiatives, such as IATI. It is therefore a prime opportunity to build IATI compliance into our systems. This supports IATI’s aim of “publish once and use often” for different purposes and different users. So, when doing system upgrades – as recommended in a number of reports, including by the General Accountability Office – we need to be smart about maximizing our IT investments.

Deadlines matter and the executive order sets them. Transparency commitments, such as the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, are great concepts but their implementation has been problematic. Almost two and a half years have passed since the Dashboard’s creation and it is still largely incomplete. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the executive order include the development of a “Cross-Agency Priority” (CAP) goal to track implementation progress with metrics and milestones. This should build on the goals set by the U.S. implementation schedule for IATI by urging agencies to produce good quality, IATI-compliant data.

Best practices will be shared online. Such a repository of agencies’ tools and methods helps us all solve problems and be more effective and efficient. To date, 37 official international donor agencies have signed IATI and 22 have begun publishing to the IATI standard. The sharing of concerns, system limitations and data issues have already proven to be useful in easing and speeding the process of adaptation to open data for all participants. The same holds on the U.S. domestic front. With over 25 U.S. agencies involved in some aspect of administering foreign assistance, it makes sense to bring all agencies into a common learning space to foster “government-wide communities of practice”.

This new approach to open data is both visionary and detailed, and we hope the data starts flowing soon. In the spirit of this new policy, we should embrace IATI as best practice in open aid information and learn lessons from others who have piloted this initiative before us. The president has set the goal of U.S. leadership in open data. It is now the task of the aid transparency champions within the administration to see this through to fruition.