Open Gov Directive Hits the Streets (in an oh so ironic way)

So the White House released the long-awaited Open Government Directive this morning, appropriately accompanied by a live videostream at both the White House site and on Facebook with Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and new media director Macon Phillips.

With only time for a quick glance through the directive (it wasn’t made available prior to the announcement), if there’s one certainty it’s that the next four months are sure to bring additional change and increased activity in the Gov 2.0 space as agencies look to comply with the directive’s various deadlines which include:

  • Within 45 days each agency must ID and publish a minimum of three “high-value data sets” and register those sets with
  • OMB, the Federal CIO and CTO will create a government-wide working group in 45 days to focus on transparency, accountability, participatoin and collaboration throughout the federal government.
  • Within 60 days, each agency must create an “Open Government webpage (to include a public feedback mechanism), and a government-wide dashboard will be created by the Federal CIO at this time to track/rate agency progress against the directive and its deadlines
  • Within 90 days, OMB will issue guidance on how “agencies can use challenges, prizes, and other incentive-backed strategies to find innovative or cost-effective solutions” to improve open government.
  • Within 120 days, agencies must create an “Open Government Plan” to describe how it will improve its transparencyand integrate public participation/collaboration into its activities

It will be interesting to see what key themes, issues and challenges emerge after folks have time for a more in-depth look at the directive (which is an unfunded mandate, by the way). An example of just how hard it can be to drive this new mix of cultural and technological change comes from the directive itself.  Part 1-b of the new directive states that agencies “to the extent practicable…should publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications.” In a bit of unintentional irony, The White House chose to issue the directive as a non-machine-readable PDF.

View the directive here, and also the White House Blog post on the directive. [edit 12/13: Looks like they updated formats and now it’s available as html, as well as pdf, txt, doc or view on Slideshare ]

If you’d like to extend the discussion, I’ve started a topic up over at GovLoop.

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  • Preston L. Bannister

    Not sure what you meant by “a non-machine-readable PDF”. Sometimes a PDF contains only scanned images, and that is indeed not very useful. I pulled up the PDF in question, and found the text in the PDF is selectable (a simple, sufficient test).

    As a guy who writes software, I can assure you that PDF (Portable Document Format) files can indeed indexed and searched by commonly used software. A bit after you download the PDF to your Windows desktop, you will find that built-in Windows Search will find text with that PDF. (Adobe supplied the plug-in for Windows back in the 1990’s.)

    Perhaps you did not know the PDF file format is very well-documented by Adobe, and it is easily possible to write software to create and read PDF files. (I have done this, as have many others.)

    More recently there has been work to make the Portable Document Format a standard independent of Adobe. So both on a practical and theoretic basis, PDF is an open standard.

    • dslunceford

      Thanks Preston. I may not have been clear in my comment, but as Sunlight points out “The PDF file format, for instance, isn’t particularly easily parsed. As ubiquitous as a PDF file is, often times they’re non-parsable by software, unfindable by search engines, and unreliable if text is extracted.” See their full post here:

      • pbannister

        To be clear, parsing a PDF is certainly more trouble than an XML file. Publishing large amounts of structured data as PDF is certainly not ideal (for later automated access). Also using Adobe Flash, Microsoft Word or Excel to present and store data is pure evil, as far as I am concerned.

        (Since I have faced the same problem, I understand perfectly what the good folk at Sunlight are trying to say.)

        But … we need to cut the government folk a bit of slack. It takes time to learn to use new tools and practices. If they publish some stuff as PDF in the meantime, that is not too bad. Over time I hope they learn to use better tools. An 11 page memorandum as a PDF is not really a problem.

        • dslunceford

          Yeah, I don’t think it’s a problem, per se, but it is a little humorous to publish a policy that pushes certain processes/tech approaches while eschewing those same approaches when publishing the policy. Could they not have produced a PDF and a xml version with little extra effort/technical knowledge?

  • pbannister

    Agreed as to the humor.

    Pragmatically, I can rip the contents out of an 11 page memorandum without trouble or damage to the semantics. Pretty much a non-issue. On the other hand, attempting to extract the contents out of a thousand-plus page health bill PDF, with semantics … that takes us into oh-god-please-no territory.

    (The techie perspective …)