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Ten Principles for Opening Up Government Information

Available as PDF here.

August 11, 2010

In October 2007, 30 open government advocates met in Sebastopol, California to discuss how government could open up electronically-stored government data for public use. Up until that point, the federal and state governments had made some data available to the public, usually inconsistently and incompletely, which had whetted the advocates' appetites for more and better data. The conference, led by Carl Malamud and Tim O'Reilly and funded by a grant from the Sunlight Foundation, resulted in eight principles that, if implemented, would empower the public's use of government-held data.

We have updated and expanded upon the Sebastopol list and identified ten principles that provide a lens to evaluate the extent to which government data is open and accessible to the public. The list is not exhaustive, and each principle exists along a continuum of openness. The principles are completeness, primacy, timeliness, ease of physical and electronic access, machine readability, non-discrimination, use of commonly owned standards, licensing, permanence and usage costs.

1. Completeness

Datasets released by the government should be as complete as possible, reflecting the entirety of what is recorded about a particular subject. All raw information from a dataset should be released to the public, except to the extent necessary to comply with federal law regarding the release of personally identifiable information. Metadata that defines and explains the raw data should be included as well, along with formulas and explanations for how derived data was calculated. Doing so will permit users to understand the scope of information available and examine each data item at the greatest possible level of detail.

2. Primacy

Datasets released by the government should be primary source data. This includes the original information collected by the government, details on how the data was collected and the original source documents recording the collection of the data. Public dissemination will allow users to verify that information was collected properly and recorded accurately.

3. Timeliness

Datasets released by the government should be available to the public in a timely fashion. Whenever feasible, information collected by the government should be released as quickly as it is gathered and collected. Priority should be given to data whose utility is time sensitive. Real-time information updates would maximize the utility the public can obtain from this information.

4. Ease of Physical and Electronic Access

Datasets released by the government should as accessible as possible, with accessibility defined as the ease with which information can be obtained, whether through physical or electronic means. Barriers to physical access include requirements to visit a particular office in person or requirements to comply with particular procedures (such as completing forms or submitting FOIA requests). Barriers to automated electronic access include making data accessible only via submitted forms or systems that require browser-oriented technologies (e.g., Flash, Javascript, cookies or Java applets). By contrast, providing an interface for users to download all of the information stored in a database at once (known as "bulk" access) and the means to make specific calls for data through an Application Programming Interface (API) make data much more readily accessible. (An aspect of this is "findability," which is the ability to easily locate and download content.)

5. Machine readability

Machines can handle certain kinds of inputs much better than others. For example, handwritten notes on paper are very difficult for machines to process. Scanning text via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) results in many matching and formatting errors. Information shared in the widely-used PDF format, for example, is very difficult for machines to parse. Thus, information should be stored in widely-used file formats that easily lend themselves to machine processing. (When other factors necessitate the use of difficult-to-parse formats, data should also be available in machine-friendly formats.) These files should be accompanied by documentation related to the format and how to use it in relation to the data.

6. Non-discrimination

"Non-discrimination" refers to who can access data and how they must do so. Barriers to use of data can include registration or membership requirements. Another barrier is the uses of "walled garden," which is when only some applications are allowed access to data. At its broadest, non-discriminatory access to data means that any person can access the data at any time without having to identify him/herself or provide any justification for doing so.

7. Use of Commonly Owned Standards

Commonly owned (or "open") standards refers to who owns the format in which data is stored. For example, if only one company manufactures the program that can read a file where data is stored, access to that information is dependent upon use of the company's processing program. Sometimes that program is unavailable to the public at any cost, or is available, but for a fee. For example, Microsoft Excel is a fairly commonly-used spreadsheet program which costs money to use. Freely available alternative formats often exist by which stored data can be accessed without the need for a software license. Removing this cost makes the data available to a wider pool of potential users.

8. Licensing

The imposition of "Terms of Service," attribution requirements, restrictions on dissemination and so on acts as barriers to public use of data. Maximal openness includes clearly labeling public information as a work of the government and available without restrictions on use as part of the public domain.

9. Permanence

The capability of finding information over time is referred to as permanence. Information released by the government online should be sticky: It should be available online in archives in perpetuity. Often times, information is updated, changed or removed without any indication that an alteration has been made. Or, it is made available as a stream of data, but not archived anywhere. For best use by the public, information made available online should remain online, with appropriate version-tracking and archiving over time.

10. Usage Costs

One of the greatest barriers to access to ostensibly publicly-available information is the cost imposed on the public for access--even when the cost is de minimus. Governments use a number of bases for charging the public for access to their own documents: the costs of creating the information; a cost-recovery basis (cost to produce the information divided by the expected number of purchasers); the cost to retrieve information; a per page or per inquiry cost; processing cost; the cost of duplication etc.

Most government information is collected for governmental purposes, and the existence of user fees has little to no effect on whether the government gathers the data in the first place. Imposing fees for access skews the pool of who is willing (or able) to access information. It also may preclude transformative uses of the data that in turn generates business growth and tax revenues.