Three Misconceptions about the Open Government Directive


There are three common misconceptions about the Open Government Directive that I’d like to clear up.

1. “It was late.” Not so, unless you’re talking about hopes rather than requirements. This misconception comes from the language in the January 21st memo, which directed the “Chief Technology Officer…to coordinate the development…within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive.”  The deadline of May 21, 2009, was for “recommendations,” not for the directive itself.

2. “The three new datasets must be never-before-released.” This may be the confusion most likely to cause controversy, since this criterion for newness will be used to judge how well agencies fulfill the directive.  This hinges on how you read this sentence:

These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format.

You could read the sentence to mean that the data must be hitherto neither online nor downloadable, which would imply that all the new datasets released to fulfill the requirement must be brand new to the public.  This seems unlikely, since no public dataset available in a downloadable format to the public would be “not previously available online.”  In other words, the likeliest intended meaning of the sentence is agencies can publish datasets that have been published poorly before as data for the first time, and have that count.

In that case, DOJ publishing the FOIA performance spreadsheets would count as one of their three datasets required to be published within 45 days, since they’ve only been published as documents until now.

Parentheses may help elucidate the confusing sentence structure:

These must be data sets (not previously available online or in a downloadable format).

These must be data sets (not previously available online) or (in a downloadable format).

3. “High value datasets aren’t defined.” I spent part of the rush of Tuesday’s release thinking this was the case.  From the attachment to the directive:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.