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Federal Open Data Challenges and Regulations

Government agencies are under pressure to make data more accessible to their own departments, as well as to the public. The move to make data more accessible is referred to as “open data,” namely ensuring that it is available to everyone to use freely, preferably via the Internet. This data can be reused and redistributed, including mixing the information with other data sets to draw additional conclusions. Therefore, noncommercial restrictions or restrictions on the use of data only for certain purposes — such as only in education — are not allowed.

Benefits of Data Openness

According to a 2013 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, open data has the potential to unlock anywhere between $3 trillion and $5 trillion annually in total economic value. Examples of where improvements are being seen include transportation, through reduced traffic congestion as the costs of driving rather than taking a bus have become more apparent. In healthcare, these initiatives allow patients to better manage their health, avoid illnesses and get better treatment. It also explains that reductions occurred in lifestyle illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes.

Governments themselves will see benefits in terms of strengthened democracy and accountability through greater transparency, and they’ll be able to promote greater efficiency. McKinsey also noted they will see tax revenues increase in line with opportunities for expanded economic activity.

In the private sector, businesses will benefit from improved productivity and will be better able to branch out into novel new lines of business, as well as improving their product and service offerings to better serve their customers.

Challenges Facing Data Openness

The Global Open Data Initiative conducted a survey in 2013 that found that the greatest challenges involved are politics, data quality, access to data and engagement.

In terms of politics, one of the challenges is that data is often held in different silos in government departments and branches. The survey also found that opening up data is still frequently viewed with resistance and suspicion, with many feeling that data is politically sensitive. Respondents agreed that achieving effective data disclosure would require a combination of both legislative and persuasive tactics.

In order for the data to be actionable, it must be easy to understand. This means it should be made available using a predetermined set of standards. At present, many data sets are difficult to interrogate as data is often presented in a highly technical and complex manner, which makes it hard to understand them. Data quality also remains a challenge, with data sets often incomplete, out of date or containing errors.

The final main challenge of engagement requires that awareness increases for initiatives among citizens and communities so that they can realize the available benefits. With communities fully engaged, they will be motivated to innovate in terms of local service provision, social enterprise and job creation.

Regulatory Initiatives Promote Openness

Some commentators point out that not only do standards need to be developed further, but also laws need to be put into place to support data openness initiatives. Progress is being made on the regulatory front, with many governments around the world creating guidance and government legislation. In the U.S., the first such action was the government Open Data Initiative, published in 2009. This required that all agencies publish at least three high-value data sets online and register them on the data.gov website within 45 days of the publication of the memorandum.

A memorandum and an executive order followed the Open Data Initiative. First, Executive Order 13642 of May 2013, titled “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” set out the government’s policy and specific actions to be taken by agencies. It required agencies to ensure that privacy, confidentiality and security or other restrictions are considered prior to the release of information.

Memorandum M-13-13, titled “Open Data Policy—Managing Information as an Asset,” provided a framework to instill principles of effective information management among government agencies in order to promote interoperability and openness. It required agencies to collect and present information in machine-readable form using open formats and standards.

Applicability Beyond Government

However, such initiatives cannot purely be led by those at the federal level or be the government’s safeguard. In order for all citizens to benefit, some are bound to be led by the private sector. An example of this is an initiative by Samsung for developing a cloud-based platform for tracking health data. The principle behind this initiative is to gather the resources to address global health and technology concerns for the good of all citizens. This enables them to better manage their own health and wellness.

While most attention is focused on the government sector, the potential of open and accessible data extends far beyond just public information. As the vision of the Internet of Things gets closer, real-time data presented in an open manner will benefit consumers everywhere and will allow organizations to better serve their customers and stakeholders.

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Fran Howarth

Fran Howarth is an industry analyst specializing in security. She has worked within the security technology sector for over 25 years as an analyst, consultant and writer. Fran focuses on the business needs for security technologies, with a focus on emerging technology sectors. Current areas of focus include mobile security, cloud security, information governance and data security, identity and access management, network and endpoint security, security intelligence and analytics, and security governance and regulations. Follow Fran on Twitter: @FranNL

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