U.S. Puts Government On The Web

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The White House has launched several new Web sites as part of its "Open Government Initiative." The Obama administration calls it a groundbreaking expansion of citizen access to the data and process of government.


And now to a White House Web initiative that hasn't gotten such a high profile rollout. It's a big push to put government data on the Internet. It's called the Open Government Initiative. And NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports that the idea is to give citizens access to the data and give them a role in the governing process.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Before the Obama administration, the government didn't have a chief information officer - now it does. His name is Vivek Kundra.

Mr. VIVEK KUNDRA (Federal Chief Information Officer): Imagine you're somebody who is allergic to peanuts.

SEABROOK: With a few clicks on the new Web site data.gov, Kundra pulls up a simple table of information collected by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mr. KUNDRA: Every single product that could potentially cause an allergic reaction, if you are allergic to peanuts.

SEABROOK: Huh, that's useful. But it goes beyond that, says Kundra. Because the government has put this up on the Web and in a way that computer programmers can easily access…

Mr. KUNDRA: Developers are able to actually take that data and create this little widget that allows you to embed this in your Web site, on your iPhone, on your TV, depending on the technologies that you have access to.

SEABROOK: Now expand your thinking from peanuts to census data, weather statistics, flu virus trends, military data, student achievement scores, on and on. The government collects a lot of information and, says Beth Noveck, it's yours.

Professor BETH NOVECK (Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Open Government Initiative): Government data is a national asset - it belongs to the taxpayer.

SEABROOK: Noveck is the deputy chief technology officer for Open Government, another post that didn't exist before now. She points to another part of the Open Government Initiative - it's at whitehouse.gov/open. It's a brainstorming session with anyone - anyone who has an idea for what the government should do.

Prof. NOVECK: Whether they're scientists or technologists, whether they're homemakers or truck drivers, whatever their experience.

SEABROOK: Citizens should be able to suggest ideas, says Noveck.

Prof. NOVECK: We do not have a monopoly on the best ideas. And we do not have all the answers to the questions that we need in order to face tremendous challenges that we confront today.

SEABROOK: Noveck says this and data.gov are just the beginning. President Obama, she says, is committed to cracking open the government.

Prof. NOVECK: We can no longer live in an era of secrecy and of hiding the ball. We have to put this information out there, even when it's hard, even when the information we reveal may be difficult. It's essential to holding government accountable and to the strength of our democracy.

SEABROOK: So, the reaction from government watchdogs? Three words - more, more, more. Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says right now the amount of data on data.gov is fairly limited.

Ms. MARCIA HOFMANN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): My understanding is that the government intends to put up a lot more information as time goes on. But, you know, it remains to be seen what exactly that information is going to be and how they are going to encourage agencies to voluntarily put it up there.

SEABROOK: And Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation says the government should make it a priority to get the most important information up sooner.

Ms. ELLEN MILLER (Sunlight Foundation): And, in my mind, you got - priority data is the data that affects the public trust in its institutions. So, you know, personal financial disclosures, lobbying reports - there are many lobbying reports that are found in the Justice Department that have never seen the light of day. That is to say, they're not online - that being the definition of light of day in the 21st century.

SEABROOK: So, in general, Open Government advocates are pleased with this step and they are ready for the government to take the next one, like, yesterday.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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