Webcontent.gov updates publishing-data recommendations

I was very lucky this week to have stumbled into the middle of an update being done to a page maintained by the U.S.’s GSA at webcontent.gov on best practices for making data available, for executive branch agencies. The site serves as a collection of best practices and uses OMB policies
as a starting point. I think it had been last updated in 2005.

The page updated is here.

The updates were a combination of suggestions from Scott Horvath and Jeremy Fee at the USGS, Kol Peterson from EPA, and me, and really big thanks go to Scott and Kol for reaching out to others for input on Monday and getting the feedback back to Bev Godwin at GSA who runs webcontent.gov who published the changes only a few days later. Scott also notes that additional suggestions could still be considered (his email address is at the bottom of that page).

In making my suggestions, I turned to the Open Government Data Principles and tried to squeeze in as much as I could without overloading the document, and I drew from ideas that came up in the preparation of the Open House Project report. Some of the changes made were:

  • It now provides examples of data as being documents, audio/visual recordings, and databases.
  • It now says to support “the widest practical range of public uses of
    the data”. It had formerly suggested supporting the “intended” use of
    the website by visitors.
  • It notes the benefit of providing data: “New uses of your agency’s
    data may become a valuable public resource that would be out of the
    scope of your own website, such as helping to keep the public informed
    about the work of your agency and supporting civic education and
  • There is a new paragraph that I might be misunderstanding but which
    seems to make a suggestion along the lines of the recent “Invisible
    Hand” paper about the agency’s website getting the data the same way the
    public does: “Providing a uniform method to access raw data can also be
    the first step in internal development, accomplishing both goals at
    once. When a uniform method to access data is available, developers and
    web–services can focus on data presentation.”
  • It notes that the availability of bulk downloads of data is something
    to consider when building data access.
  • It notes some disadvantages of using proprietary formats.
  • It recommends that if a proprietary format is needed, a
    non-proprietary format should be used in addition.
  • It adds a benchmark to test for success: “One benchmark for
    determining whether data is made sufficiently available is whether the
    public has all of the data needed to replicate any searching, sorting,
    and display functionality provided on the agency’s own website.”
  • It notes that consulting the public in the development of data access
    seems to be entailed from OMB policy: “When choosing data formats and
    distribution methods, keep in mind that your agency’s visitors are the
    best judges of their own needs. Agencies must “establish and maintain
    communications with members of the public and with State and local
    governments to ensure your agency creates information dissemination
    products meeting their respective needs” (OMB Policies for Federal
    Public Websites #4A).”

We have a real success story here.

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