Provide Appropriate Access to Data
What It Is
Providing appropriate access to data is a best practice for managing your agency's website. When you provide data such as documents, audio/visual recordings, and databases to the public for analysis or manipulation, you should provide the data in open, industry standard formats or in alternative formats that do not impose a burden on the intended audience, so as to support the widest practical range of public uses of the data.
Why It's Important
Visitors to federal public websites, and many web-based services, may want to manipulate data that is made public for their own purposes. New uses of your agency's data may become a valuable public resource that would be out of the scope of your own website, such as helping to keep the public informed about the work of your agency and supporting civic education and participation. You should facilitate the public's ability to make new uses of your data by providing it in open, machine-processable formats.
Providing a uniform method to access raw data can also be the first step in internal development, accomplishing both goals at once. When a uniform method to access data is available, developers and web services can focus on data presentation. One benchmark for determining whether data is made sufficiently available is whether the public has all of the data needed to replicate any searching, sorting, and display functionality provided on the agency's own website.
OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites require agencies to "provide all data in an open, industry standard format permitting users to aggregate, disaggregate, or otherwise manipulate and analyze the data to meet their needs."
Guidance is also provided in OMB Memorandum M-13-13: Open Data Policy—Managing Information as an Asset (PDF, 6 MB, 12 pages, May 2013), in accordance with the May 9, 2013 Executive Order—Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.
How to Implement
When choosing a format, consider:
- how to support the widest practical range of uses of the data by the public;
- the frequency of use by the website's visitors and the frequency of which the data changes;
- the accessibility of the data from the perspectives of how it can be acquired by the public, or whether it can be acquired in bulk;
- what software is required to make use of the data; and
- the level of effort and time required by the organization to convert the data to the file format.
- Use open formats such as ATOM, XML, RSS, and RDF that provide the greatest flexibility for visitors and web-based services and which are generally preferred over proprietary formats requiring specific software to interpret the data. This helps to reduce the dependency on a single software vendor allowing the data to be usable in the future.
- Using proprietary formats is discouraged. If you must use a proprietary format, only use one if the format provides functionality not otherwise available or if non-proprietary formats are not widely deployed. You must also provide the data in a non-proprietary format and ensure that the intended audience is known to have ready access to the appropriate software, or provide a link to download the appropriate viewer, plug-in, or software.
- When choosing data formats and distribution methods, keep in mind that your agency's visitors are the best judges of their own needs. Agencies must "establish and maintain communications with members of the public and with State and local governments to ensure your agency creates information dissemination products meeting their respective needs" (OMB Policies for Federal Public Websites #4A).
- Read the HowTo.gov pages on How to Create Open, Structured Content and Use of Standard Metadata and Microdata.
- USA.gov provides an updated listing of government websites providing their data in RSS format.
- The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program provides earthquake related data in a wide range of formats such as ATOM, KML, XML, and CSV.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics website offers visitors many choices for viewing and downloading data, including the ability to download flat files.
- The National Center for Education Statistics provides survey data in both SAS and non-proprietary flat file formats.
- The Census Bureau offers bulk downloads of extremely large datasets of population statistics, in a well-documented flat-file data format, at extremely fine levels of granularity.
- The Environmental Protection Agency offers the Envirofacts Data Warehouse where users can access and directly query EPA data sets.
- Project Open Data is an OMB and OSTP resource; an online repository of tools, best practices, and schema to help agencies adopt the framework presented in OMB Memorandum M-13-13: Open Data Policy—Managing Information as an Asset (PDF, 6 MB, 12 pages, May 2013)