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Q & A: DOT's open data initiatives

The Department of Transportation has been one of the pioneers in developing a data inventory and making data sets available to the public. DOT's Office of the CIO responded in writing to a handful of questions about its open data efforts:

Q KMW: In developing a unified open government policy for the DOT, what were some of the main issues the agency had to work through? 

A DOT: We convened working groups looking at policy, technology, culture and data to prepare our first open government plan.The Policy Working Group performed a gap analysis between the desired outcomes of the Open Government Directive and the current policy framework at DOT. They also identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

For instance, it found that some of our public information was not in plain language or open formats, and that standard reports, like budget and performance reports, were written more for government than for the general public. It also found a lack of common standards and definitions for data systems across the department, and no departmentwide process for releasing data. The larger working group recognized that we needed a process to identify data sets and points of contact and to define "high-value" data for the purposes of the Open Government Directive.

Q KMW: You had to inventory data, select the right data sets to release and determine how to develop a DOT-wide data architecture. Who was it important to include in those discussions? Which of those aspects proved the most challenging and why? 

A DOT: We formed a working group that included personnel from a number of disciplines around the department, including enterprise architects, records managers, data stewards and program and policy leaders. One thing we discovered through the process was that DOT frequently released a good amount of data, even before the Open Government Directive. So, a big key to our success was to embrace our current efforts and look for ways to scale and institutionalize them. As a regulatory agency, transparency in our enforcement and inspection actions is an essential part of our strategy for accomplishing our mission.

Q KMW: Were there things about DOT's IT architecture or IT team that gave it a head start in working on these issues compared to other federal agencies? Or does transportation data particularly lend itself to public app development? Why is it one of the pioneers in open data in the federal government? 

A DOT: DOT experiences the same challenges as any other federal agency. We have a mix of systems and technologies, some of which really weren't designed to share information directly with the public. Transportation is something people can easily relate to-every day, people have to get somewhere. What might surprise people is the kind of data we keep at the federal level and how much data is at the state and local level. At the federal level, we keep a lot of information about the condition of roads and bridges, as well as about regulatory enforcement actions. But we don't keep state and local-level information such as bus schedules and traffic data. A lot of the early open data work in transportation was at the local and state levels, rather than the federal level. But those local successes helped us design our federal efforts better.

Q KMW: Could you describe how the safety.data.gov website promotes the productive use of safety-related data sets? 

A DOT: Safety.data.gov includes 866 data sets covering areas such as crime; corrections; law enforcement; roadway, aviation and maritime fatalities, injuries and crashes; information on product safety such as recalls; and natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes and fires. We do "data jams" and "datapaloozas" to find practical applications for our data. Agencies have developed their own applications, and at DOT we built SaferBus and SaferCar road safety tools. The Red Cross has built applications to help during hurricanes and tornadoes using data available through safety.data.gov. A number of private companies, such as SAP (Recalls+), WeMakeItSafer, and SafetyBook are using recall data to help protect consumers and families from dangerous products that have been recalled.

Q KMW: Are there some lessons learned that you can share with other agencies that are just starting this process?

A DOT: It's important for agencies to remember that they probably already have the data on their websites. They can start from there and describe the data, find out who's responsible for it and make those people part of your working group. Don't rely on your CIO to know where all the data is. Your program people use it every day, and they know where it is and what it can do. Also, it's important for offices providing data to the public to have a general understanding of their agency's various data sets.

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