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The agreement by the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to release a colossal index of federal government data holdings isn’t just a boon for transparency campaigners. With the right planning and coordination, it could provide the basis for improved data sharing between agencies, cutting duplication costs and improving services.

A map of government data could help agencies to work smarter

The OMB has granted the Sunlight Foundation’s 14-month-old freedom of information request for the index of government data that was created following a presidential executive order in May 2013, which compelled federal agencies to submit comprehensive indices of their information holdings – Enterprise Data Inventories (EDIs) – to the OMB.

For journalists and researchers, the index could serve as a yardstick for gauging the progress of the White House’s open data policy, but its release isn’t just a boon for transparency campaigners. It constitutes a map of government data holdings, which could serve as the basis for improved sharing of information across federal agencies. Each agency has only limited knowledge of what data other agencies hold, meaning data collection efforts are often duplicated unnecessarily, wasting resources and slowing services.

If agencies knew what data was already held across government, then provided they had access to it, they could minimize the amount of data that they need to collect themselves. This would cut duplication costs and save time. Federal government work that deals directly with individuals – such as tax, immigration, or Medicare – might run a good deal more smoothly if the agencies involved could collaborate in their delivery through better data sharing.

That’s not to say that agencies are in a position to start seamlessly sharing data with each other just yet. Regulations governing how data is held and shared are one factor. Technology is another. The most efficient way to share data is to pool it: for this to happen, agencies need to set up secure shared data hubs and processes to link and harmonize corresponding sets of data. This would also help to promote better quality data. Releasing the index isn’t going to bring about any of this by itself, but it’s a big enough step in the right direction to deserve as warm a welcome from federal agencies as from transparency campaigners.


Further reading

Master Data Management: More Than a Response to Austerity, IT0007-000790 (January 2015)

On the Radar: Infoshare, IT0007-000756 (August 2014)

Framework: Open Data Govt. Portals and Data Quality, IT0007-000751 (May 2014)

Open Data Government Portals and Data Quality, IT007-000744 (February 2014)

“Cities hold the keys to open data,” IT0007-000796 (February 2015)


Nick Wallace, Analyst, Public Sector

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