November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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From the Executive Officer

"Adopt a Federal Database" . . . and Open the Data Highway for Better Research and More Informed Public Policy

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

The many sociologists who depend on federal data for their research and teaching should take note of the Obama Administration’s government-wide Open Government Initiative. Its aim is to stimulate government innovation by instilling the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration more firmly in federal agencies and by making federal data more accessible. The Administration is encouraging research communities and the general public to "adopt" a government database. It’s like a friendly invitation to "Adopt a Highway" but without the formal sponsorship requirement.

Science communities whose researchers depend on access to federal databases (e.g., Census, agricultural, economic, environmental, health, labor) are being asked to collaborate with government to help improve access to more unfiltered government data by exploring such data as it becomes available and by doing analyses on it and conceiving new uses and packaging of the data. The goal is to enhance and enrich the contributions that research and knowledge-building can make to the quality of the nation’s policymaking.

At a September 24, 2009, National Research Council-sponsored event ("Scientific Data for Evidence-based Policymaking"), leaders of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and several federal research and regulatory agencies expressed strong support for processes that would help government institutions become more innovative (and therefore more effective) by adopting core scientific values (i.e., collaboration, expertise, openness) that have made science successful in innovation and producing new, high-quality knowledge.

Data.gov Unveiled

With the President’s Executive Memo of January 20, 2009, as a guide, OMB unveiled the Data.gov website in May to catalyze a process of increasing the visibility, access, and transparency sought by the President. Data.gov is intended to be a one-stop access point for raw federal data, designed to provide "unprecedented openness" and free access to government information. As more types of data become publicly available in machine-readable formats through Data.gov, OMB hopes researchers and others will develop innovative uses of the data, build new applications, conduct analyses, and potentially repackage the data. As an example, the new data-driven cell phone applications (e.g., the iPhone’s "Congress in Your Pocket") could be a harbinger of myriad future applications (commercial as well as scientific), if the Data.gov initiative has the envisioned impact on innovation.

vpData.gov features searchable catalogs of more than 100,000 datasets, dozens of information tools, including links to sites that have data mining and extraction tools, and live data feeds. Sociological researchers could play a significant role in this new environment of "democratizing information" by encouraging students and colleagues to explore the usefulness of Data.gov. It is intended to overcome long-standing difficulties that citizens, scientists, and federal agencies themselves have had accessing data across federal agencies because the data have been housed in different sites and often use unique formats.

A Challenge to Be Explored

Another aspiration of Data.gov is that feedback and ideas to help improve government databases and government functions will flow from increased access to government data. OMB seeks public participation and collaboration in building Data.gov, and it welcomes suggestions for datasets, evaluations of current datasets, and ideas for improvement. The Data.gov and White House websites provide links for submitting suggestions. State and local governments are also being urged to open their data warehouses; progress on this goal is viewable at the OMB website.

As increasing amounts of government data become available, the research possibilities could be synergistically and geometrically enhanced, perhaps to the point of catalyzing discoveries otherwise impossible to achieve. The potential for improved research and data opportunities for scientific and public access to unfiltered government data stand in stark contrast to the many threats over decades by both the legislative and executive branches to defund or weaken various data sources. Nevertheless, these threats are likely to continue. Federal budget constraints will present very serious challenges for the foreseeable future to maintaining and improving existing federal data collection efforts and adding important new ones. But the promise of Data.gov to open up the federal "data vault" is welcome.

Members of the general public could become more acutely aware of the value of data collected by the government as it becomes more integrated in their daily lives (e.g., through web-based and mobile device software applications). Sociologists are already engaged in captivating public audiences with our translation of dry Census data into dynamic web-based applications that are spectacular in their graphical capabilities and rate highly on the "gee whiz" factor.

Some citizens, however, could become more aware of data that they don’t believe the government should be collecting or distributing because it is deemed wasteful or intrusive. Social scientists have long experience with attacks on collecting data on sex and sexuality and on data from school children.

Consumers, meanwhile, are spawning a parallel culture-shifting data revolution by virtue of the mass of information they generate using new technology (e.g., cell phones, Twitter, GPS, web-based ratings); the private sector (e.g., IBM’s Center for Social Software) is forging this data into futuristic data visualization applications. Some of these might spark your ideas for the newly available government data, many of which have been stored only on paper until now.

As a data-dependent research community, we should invoke our sociological imagination and consider how we might "adopt" federal datasets and perhaps collaborate with other sectors to develop applications that tap sociologically relevant data, improve datasets, and create new approaches to integrating disparate data that improve scientific work. Our discipline has the expertise and an enviable track record in such efforts. A new collaborative and open-government climate, if sustained, should help improve our capacity to engaged in basic research and translate science-based knowledge into the domains of policy and practice. So let’s give serious thought these opportunities and explore the possibilities. Dust off your data wish-list and visit Data.gov to see what might be there already or what should be there. logo

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

 

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