There was a short article in the New York Times the other day about a quietly launched new government website called data.gov. The purpose of the site is to collect the amazing wealth of information created in the agencies of the US government in one place and make it freely accessible to anyone.
We open source-minded folks think that is just swell. In fact, this subject has been of interest to me for a long time. When I was right out of college and working for the literary agent Rafe Sagalyn, we actually wrote two books intended to help people find the great information the government was putting together for us, but not doing a good job actually getting to us.
The first was a book called Uncle Sam’s Guide to the Great Outdoors, which told you how and where to write or call the government to get information sent to you before you planned a trip into the American wilderness: national parks, forest, wildlife preserves, and whatnot.
It was all great until this dumb Internet thing came along and made it easy for people to access this sort of information online. Now that book is a relic of a bygone era of phone calls and manila envelopes.
But actual government datasets… that’s a much more complicated issue. Until now, it’s been very hard to get broad, searchable access to these datasets without advanced knowledge or tools. And they’ve certainly never been in one place and one standard format before. Data.gov is just a start, but I love the philosophy of the site so much I’m including it here: