Federal requirement for open access: Seeing what you paid for

In early May President Obama signed an executive order that makes "Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information".

This new order continues a process the President started on his first day in office with a memorandum to executive departments and agencies that stated an official openness policy for his administration. (An observation: the referenced web page is on whitehouse.gov but does not include a date for the memo - something I think would be required to have a complete history.)  While the Obama push is a welcome one, not everyone is pleased with the progress to date.

[GOVERNMENT:Senators begin contentious H-1B battle]

The most recent executive order was accompanied by a memorandum that "requires agencies to collect or create information in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities." And to do so "using machine-readable and open formats, data standards, and common core and extensible metadata for all new information creation and collection efforts," while reviewing the information for privacy, confidentiality and security.

The Obama administration's primary information sharing portal is data.gov, which was established just about four yearsago.  The site provides access to data files on all sorts of things (including President Obama's executive orders). There is a lot of data on data.gov, but much of it is in raw files that need to be downloaded before they can be used.  The new orders direct that more work be done to create APIs that would enable interactive access to the information.

Getting direct access to zillions of bytes of information on what the government is doing with (or to) our money is a good thing, even if the modes of access could be made better.  But perhaps as important are the rules John Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology, published in late February.  

The U.S. government spends about $30 billion per year in support of basic research. That sounds like a lot of money but it is almost a round-off error on the over $3.5 trillion federal budget.  Still, that round-off error supports a lot of researchers at places like Harvard.

Traditionally, researchers would publish their results in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Libraries would buy subscriptions to the journals, often for hundreds of dollars per journal per year.  The journal publishers use the revenue to support the publishing and peer review processes. In addition, for-profit journal publishers also would like to make some money.  Even though federal rules have, for years, required researchers to provide access to their raw data so other researchers could verify their work, this data has been generally hard to get a hold of.

Holdren's new rules require that most federal funding agencies develop plans to require easy Internet-based access to research papers and to the raw research data within a year or so of the publication of a paper. The delay will let the publishers of scholarly journals preserve their existing business models since the maximum value of a paper tends to be greatest in the year after publication.  The rules do permit some wiggle room on when the papers need to be made available, but the fact that independent researchers, and the general public (read taxpayers) can get reasonably quick access to the results of the research we pay for is a Good Thing.  

Some universities, including Harvard, have been pushing for this type of open access for years It is good to see the feds working for the same goals.

Disclaimer: The above-mentioned efforts and rules generally apply to information, not processes. I will not opine on whether the Obamaadministration is transparent -- in the understanding-how-decisions-are-made sense -- as well as open.  

Bradner is Harvard University's Senior Technology Consultant. Reach him at sob@sobco.com.

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