Open Government Data: the Road to Innovation

July 3, 2013

Open dataAs governments across the globe move rapidly to share data openly for public consumption, citizens and businesses have unprecedented access to information that can be leveraged for a wide range of commercial and civic uses. U.S. Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who describes his job as running an incubator inside the government, often uses weather and GPS data as examples of the potential of open data to drive innovation and economic growth. According to Park, the process of opening GPS data for commercial applications that began under President Reagan in the 1980s now contributes $90 billion in annual economic value to the U.S. economy.

One of the challenges facing open data entrepreneurs and innovators in the U.S. and elsewhere has been a lack of clarity regarding legal rights to data. In May, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued guidance that clarified the President’s 2009 Open Data Directive and subsequent Executive Order expanding it. While the Executive order mandates that “the default state of new and modernized Government information resources shall be open and machine readable”, the OMB guidance also specifically articulates the U.S. position with respect to licensure.

As noted in the Memorandum issued by Federal Chief Information Officer Steven Van Roekel, open data disseminated by the U.S. Government “are made available under an open license that places no restrictions on their use.” The OMB memo further offers, “Agencies must apply open licenses, in consultation with the best practices found in Project Open Data, to information as it is collected or created so that if data are made public there are no restrictions on copying, publishing, distributing, transmitting, adapting, or otherwise using the information for non-commercial or for commercial purposes.”

Timothy Vollmer, policy manager at Creative Commons, lauded the guidance, stating, “Depending on the exact implementation details, this could be a fantastic move that would remove any legal confusion about using federal government data. By leveraging open licenses, the U.S. federal government would be doing a great service to reusers by communicating those rights available in advance.”

Open data advocates and entrepreneurs are leveraging Federal, state, and local data, and applying their expertise and ideas to a broad range of challenges, including healthcare, energy, public safety, transportation, and education. As they succeed, and as more and more data are made available, the value of the open data movement seems certain to grow, and with it the complexity of the legal environment. That said, the U.S. Government has made a positive step forward in creating a framework to enable innovation.