Make Recovery.Gov Web 2.0 Friendly

All eyes are on one piece of legislation currently being considered by Congress — The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This legislation is essentially a massive funding plan intended to help jump start the American economy during the current fiscal year (FY 2009). We’ve been reporting about the science funding provisions of the Act, which are quite good. Today we turn our attention to an obscure requirement of the Act, which requires a website called “Recovery.gov” to house all of the grant data that would be generated from spending under the act. USACM sent a letter calling for the website’s requirements to include the ability to download complete data sets in machine-readable form.

The legislation specifies a number requirements for the website, including this one dealing with data accessibility:

  • “(3) The website shall provide data on relevant economic, financial, grant, and contract information in user-friendly visual presentations to enhance public awareness of the use funds made available in this Act.” (our emphasis)

This is clearly an important provision, but it misses a key element for the web 2.0 culture, namely the reuse of that data. Last week, USACM released its recommendations on enhancing open-government, which recommended (among other things):

  • Data published by the government should be in formats and approaches that promote analysis and reuse of that data.
  • Data republished by the government that has been received or stored in a machine-readable format (such as online regulatory filings) should preserve the machine-readability of that data.

One important step that Congress could take toward making Recovery.gov more useful for the public is building these principles into the requirements specified by the legislation. USACM outlined this argument in its letter to Congress:

“Federal web portals are an important step toward making government more open, but the citizens themselves are creating some of the most useful and innovative new websites. These sites use new technologies including the creation of “mash ups” of data from numerous sources, allowing citizen participation and collaboration in ways that the data’s original publishers never imagined.”

“One of the most critical principles for promoting reuse of publicly available government data is to make that information available in machine-readable form (meaning that computers can easily read the information). The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires Recovery.gov to provide data in “user-friendly visual presentations” to increase the public’s awareness of funds provided by the Act. This is an important and worthwhile goal, but by also making the data machine-readable the government can enable new ideas from third-party developers to drive public awareness.”

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