Page last updated at 00:04 GMT, Saturday, 20 March 2010

US calls for 'YouTube' of government data

By Chris Vallance
BBC News

Vivek Kundra, AFP/Getty
Mr Kundra is the US Chief Information Officer

The US technology chief has called on developers to build the "YouTube" of government data.

Vivek Kundra told the BBC that he envisaged a world where anyone could "slice and dice" government information and share their results.

Mr Kundra is in charge of the US data.gov website, which gives citizens access to reams of official statistics.

People can use the data to create mashups and web applications to reveal new patterns and carry out analysis.

"Imagine a world where you have a YouTube for data where anyone of us could slice and dice this data and share it with our family, friends and policymakers", he said.

He envisaged that the tool would allow anyone to explore data and see whether it was relevant to them at a local, national or global scale.

'Careful use'

Data.gov is part of President Barack Obama's larger push to make the US government more open and transparent.

For example, it has just launched Opinion Space - a website where people around the globe can submit their thoughts on US foreign policy.

Data.gov was launched in May 2009 by Mr Kundra in an effort to "unlock" the vast databases of information held by the US government.

It holds information on everything from agriculture and education to budgets and crime statistics.

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"Consider how much data the government has," Mr Kundra said.

"By democratising we put information in the hands of citizens so that they can make better decisions and fundamentally change the way we deliver services."

The idea has been criticised by some who feel that government could better use its resources to provide accessible, understandable information for everyone, rather than a raw data stream for developers.

Initially, it was also criticised for only holding a limited number of data sets, many of which were already available. But steadily, the number is growing.

This was in part, Mr Kundra said, because the project had involved a major cultural change for the agencies that had previously held the data.

"We also have to be mindful that in no way do we violate the privacy of the people that we serve or national security for that matter."

'Unimagined change'

It currently has 1,276 sets which have been downloaded 25,618 times in the last week. The number of apps using the data is also increasing.

Opinion Space
Opinion Space tracks people's views of US foreign policy

Mr Kundra highlighted an iPhone app built to allow people to search for product recalls, using data from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission.

He said "contests and challenges" were being run to encourage more apps to be built.

"We've seen the army, for example, issue a challenge called apps for the army," he said.

He said the opening up of government data had the potential to create new jobs and new industries.

"I would argue that in the same way websites may have been a novel concept in the early days of the internet, what we are seeing today is the emergence of government as a platform, and now you'll see innovation happen on top of that.

"New businesses will be created that we cannot imagine today. New services will be deployed and the public will have greater transparency to participate in the democratic institutions in ways that they could have never imagined before."



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