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A Lot of Government Information Is Freely Available

Posted on January 03, 2019

From health and education statistics to budget and spending information, the federal government produces a lot of information, or data. Agencies are making more and more of this data open for everyone to use. Our recent report identified 5 key practices that can help the government’s open data reach a wide range of users. Today’s WatchBlog explores these key practices.

What is open government data?

Open government data is government-produced information that anyone can freely use, modify, and share for any purpose. For example, the Treasury Department publishes open data on its new website, which provides detailed information to help track government spending.

Open data can foster accountability and public trust by giving citizens information about government activities and results. It can also promote private sector innovation and help industries generate revenue, such as by providing demographic, financial, or geographic information. For example, some real estate websites use Census data to provide information on the neighborhoods where homes for sale are located.

How can agencies make their data more useful?

For open government data to be most useful, it needs to be presented effectively. We found that managers of open government data programs can consider 5 key practices to ensure that their data is as transparent as possible.

For example, the government can engage with users by asking them for feedback and using it to make changes to the website. We found that the Treasury Department has a variety of ways for users to provide feedback on, including an online community forum and in-person interviews.

Photo showing Treasury contractor interviewing a member of the public at the Capitol Visitor Center

In addition, to facilitate data discovery for all users, open data managers can make sure the website is easy to navigate; provide data visualizations, such as charts, graphs, or maps; and allow users to easily search the data; among other things. We found that makes the data easy to discover by offering a variety of ways to explore, search, download, and understand the information. For example, users can generate maps based on their search results showing the amount of federal spending by state, county, or congressional district.

Image showing example of a map of advanced search results for Social Security retirement insurance (as of September 2018)

However, Treasury could help the website better address our key practices and other requirements. For example, the website doesn’t fully meet legal search requirements because users cannot search the data by city or by certain accounting codes. We recommended that Treasury better align with these search requirements, among other things.

To learn more about key practices for making open government data websites like more transparent, check out our full report.