Has the U.S. taken the lead in open data practices globally?

The United Nations in Geneva. (Photo credit: United Nations)

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) just announced that it will release its full list of published and unpublished data holdings. If this procedure becomes protocol moving forward, the U.S. might just take the lead in open data practices globally.

At Sunlight, we’ve long called for the release of open data inventories as a best practice for all government entities — whether at the local, national or international level. And we have been pushing for the public release of these inventories in the U.S. (known as Enterprise Data Inventories, or EDIs), since the creation of a listing of all data holdings was first announced almost two years ago.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this public release is how unprecedented it is, even within a global context. The release of a data inventory of this kind will be one of the first in the world.

The first time we surveyed the landscape of data inventories globally was in 2013, following the announcement of President Obama’s Open Data Executive Order. At that time, we found commitments to create any kind of data inventories in only a few places — including the U.K., Canada and the EU — but little evidence of actual implementation, and no plans for their public release.

Since then, a few further commitments have been made by governments to make listings of data holdings public, but the scope of substantial action on the part of our foreign counterparts remains to be seen. Canada outlined a proposal to create listings of data holdings within their Open Data Action Plan and — in response to the recommendations of OpenNorth, a Canadian nonprofit working around government openness — the Canadian government has agreed to publish these departmental data inventories. However, the timeline and scope of this commitment is still vague. More notably, the Open State Foundation in the Netherlands recommended the release of listings of information holdings in 2013. The Dutch government responded late last year, stating that its “aim is to have such a government-wide data inventory ready in the spring of 2015,” including listings of unpublished datasets. This seems to come closest to what we’ve seen in the U.S.

Access to a complete list of information holdings — especially of unpublished datasets — is crucial in increasing the accountability of our governing institutions. In order to help prioritize what data sets can or cannot be made public, the first step is to know what type of information the government collects and produces. It helps civil society, journalists and other interested citizens better target their information requests. Furthermore, it tips the balance of power within the traditional flow of information toward default openness. After countless months of effort, we could not be happier to see the U.S. at the forefront of this movement, and are hopeful that that this release, along with the recent commitments outlined above, represent a turning point toward government openness globally.