Should the Feds Focus on Reusable Data or User Interfaces?

How should the American federal government make available its data? In a preprint of a forthcoming paper from Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, Government Data and the Invisible Hand , David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, and Edward Felten, argue for the role of remixable data in government:

Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use....It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

The conclusion is based on a claim that the executive Branch is comparatively ineffective at creating tools for presenting data and should therefore leave that work to a private sector (either nonprofit or commercial entities) that is best able to respond to a wide variety of possible uses for government data. That doesn't mean that the government should provide no User Interface to the data, but rather "should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data." Fancier interfaces and tools should be built by others.

Moreover, the authors have recommended a specific mechanism for ensuring that the government does not privilege any user interface over their public data infrastructure: "require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large."

In a related development, the W3C launched a new eGovernment forum "for governments, citizens, researchers, and other stakeholders to investigate how best to use Web technology for good governance and citizen participation." The value proposition of the forum, as articulated by Tim Berners-Lee in the press release for the launch, is:

Open Standards, and in particular Semantic Web Standards, can help lower the cost of government, make it easier for independent agencies to work together, and increase flexibility in the face of change. Publishing Linked Data on the Web enables creative re-use of it — citizen mashups, and commercial mashups, which combine the data from many sources to stunning new uses.

I wonder whether Robinson and colleagues would recommend the adoption of "semantic web standards" by the government.

Although there's a compelling case for making government data available in a richly reusable form, there are concerns that the recommendations by Robinson et al. might cause the government to undervalue the need for good user interfaces provided by the government. A case in point was noted by PC World - Business Center: No Room for Feds in Web 2.0, Study Says:

Robinson acknowledged that some users could have concerns about the authenticity of government data coming from a third-party instead of the agency itself. He said he imagined that the third-party publishers would provide links back to the raw data on the agency Web sites." -- an important point since we depend a lot on the URI of the web page to help us assess the reliability of a site.

For more government related API and mashup news see the /government section of ProgrammableWeb.

Photo credit: Hey Paul

Be sure to read the next Government article: UK Government Moves Forward with Data Sharing, APIs, and Mashup Contest