“Open data means taking data that is sitting in the vaults of the government, that the taxpayers have already paid for, and jujitsu-ing into the public domain as machine-readable fuel for entrepreneurship and innovation.” - Todd Park, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer
History has shown that innovation often occurs by accident. Information about one topic is joined with information about a seemingly unrelated topic and an unanticipated result occurs. Information sharing and providing access to data fuels innovation. Federal, state and local governments own a treasure trove of data and the aim of the President’s Open Data Initiative is to give it back to American taxpayers.
Today, most people use weather and navigational applications on their smartphones to check the forecast anywhere in the world or to find the best route to a destination in real-time. Entrepreneurs from the public sector were able to create these life-changing innovations from weather and Global Positioning System (GPS) data that were publically released by the federal government decades ago.
In May 2013, President Obama signed an executive order which directed that open and machine-readable data will become the new default for government information in order to stimulate innovation that will improve American lives and job creation. In addition, the President directed agencies to ensure they safeguard individual privacy, confidentiality, and national security before they release their data. The openness of data in government will encourage the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public and contribute to economic growth.
In general, innovation relies on a diversity of thoughts and ingenuity and can be accelerated through the cross-sharing of ideas and data. Consider how access to research on the Internet has permeated all aspects of academic work. The Department of the Navy (DON) is the custodian of an incomprehensible amount of data that can be used to stimulate groundbreaking innovations; however, when access to this data is restricted, it is useful only to the owner and its intended users and is normally only valuable for a very short period of time.
To unleash data’s true value, it needs to be made accessible to a broad audience allowing them to innovate while using the data in unintended research areas. By opening our data for use by a wider audience, the DON can evolve its knowledge culture into one that is receptive to more than simply information sharing — it would also stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation both internal and external to the organization.
The culture within the Defense Department makes implementing an open data approach difficult. Considering the actions of John Walker, Edward Snowden and numerous reports of state-sponsored espionage, the concern with protecting sensitive information is justified. Understanding risk and the proper security classification of data are important parts of this paradigm shift. In an information-sharing environment, the default should be that data is sharable until proven otherwise.
Changing the culture form “need to know” to “need to share” within the DON will be difficult, but it must start with involved leadership. Key leaders, who must understand the importance of sharing data, need to direct their activities to adopt an open data environment that encourages communication and sharing of data internally and externally. Not only do key leaders need to be receptive of this culture shift, but the workforce must embrace it as well. By proactively collecting ideas and keeping members involved in data sharing and innovation processes, the DON will gain support internally.
By engaging the public, the DON will likely benefit as well. Opening up our data will provide opportunities for outside researchers and entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions to problems we are currently attempting to resolve. They will provide new perspectives and leverage research methods or tools not normally used inside of government. For example, theft in DoD commissaries and exchanges is a significant problem that often goes unnoticed.
If crime statistics are released to the public, the academic criminal justice community would likely take an interest. The diagram at right depicts how input from city and state governments, DoD, and the rest of the federal government combined with public sector interest could yield increased awareness of crime in the local area, to include military installations. In time, trends may be identified that could make military installations a safer environment. With this type of effort, mutually beneficial problem solving could occur across the enterprise.
The DON is a large, complex and multifaceted taxpayer-funded organization and that collects data in a variety of functional areas, such as personnel, medical, logistics, manufacturing, energy consumption and the environment. It is impossible to predict the benefits that could be realized by sharing the appropriate data with the public.
Data must be made available so that the creativity in the government and within the public sector can be harnessed. One way to make data available is through Data.gov, the home of the U.S. Government’s open data. This site contains federal, state and local data, tools, and resources to conduct research, build apps, design data visualizations, and more. Before datasets are released to Data.gov, they are reviewed to ensure there are no privacy, confidentiality, aggregation, and operational security issues.
If there is a DON dataset that you would like to publish in Data.gov, please contact the DON Open Data Officer, Philip Lee: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip Lee, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. A.J. Martinez and Robert P. Kozloski work in the Office of Strategy and Innovation, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy (Management).