GSA’s innovative Data.gov program recently welcomed a true open data advocate, Ms. Rebecca Williams, to shine her own stream of sunlight on government data. Williams is a noted open data expert having worked across state and local government along with her most recent stint at a leading nonprofit open government advocacy organization.
Data.gov is the home of the US government’s open data with almost 98,000 datasets. Data.gov features Federal, state and local data, tools, and resources to conduct research, build apps, design data visualizations, and more.
GSA: What attracted you to the data.gov program?
Williams: It was my experience as a city planner that first led me to explore new city data sources and ultimately to become a staunch open data advocate. Through my work at the Sunlight Foundation, I found that many local governments were beginning to proactively release datasets, but absent standards, reliable updates, and coordinated policies, these datasets were difficult to comparatively analyze or plug into common applications. Moreover, city and state governments were, understandably, not always aware of innovative data release practices in other jurisdictions. Joining data.gov was attractive to me because the impact of open federal data is huge and because it’s a logical home to showcase open data stories from around the country, which I hope, will facilitate coordinated efforts in the future.
GSA: How does your experience working in and with local governments as well as in the advocacy community help your new role with data.gov?
Williams: Working with local governments at the Sunlight Foundation gave me a lot of skills that I am bringing to data.gov. First off it provided me the time and space to become an expert on the open data initiatives that are currently happening on the city and state level in the United States. As an advocate I also got the experience working with a variety of stakeholders including government officials, businesses, non-profits, other civil society organizations and community groups, all of whom came to the table with different interests and goals. Lastly, my experience working for the Sunlight Foundation, which has performed such meaningful open government advocacy work over the years, has provided me the normative perspective on what data.gov could and should be.
GSA: What do you see in the future for open data?
Williams: I believe the open data movement is just taking off and that we will see more open data initiatives begin around the country. Overall, as governments participate in open data programs I think they get more thoughtful about how their open data is currently organized and maintained and how best to release more data in the future. Technical aspects will continually improve and legal issues are being explored to better balance openness and security/privacy concerns.
GSA: Are there any specific initiatives, goals, or strategies you already have in mind to help data.gov?
Williams: I’d like to better facilitate public private partnerships where possible, and help implement a better public feedback strategy. I’d also like to identify strategies to help agencies comply with the open data policy, as well as ways to better showcase impacts that are powered by open government data.
One of my favorite examples of using data to improve the bottom line is about a hackathon in New York City analyzing the city’s 311 citizen-reporting data with NYC Parks department data. The result was a more efficient and effective way for the Parks department to prune tree limbs which ultimately saved more money on the back end with less damages and cleanup costs from fallen limbs.