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What pain killers can teach us about open government

Nenov Brothers Photography/

Looking for an example of how open government data is being used by the private sector? Google the words “aspirin,” “ibuprofen” or “amoxicillin” and check out the upper right hand corner of the webpage.

You’ll find boxes with information about recommended uses, risks and possible side effects that rely on open data streams from the National Library of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration.

“The best part about this is we didn’t even know it was happening,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park told members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Friday. “It didn’t happen because of evangelism by us. It didn’t happen because we met them at a meet up. They just somehow learned about the API we had . . . and boom. This materialized and now that information is helping everyone on Google search and score aspirin and every other drug.”

Park has been working to make raw government data available online to developers and entrepreneurs since 2009, first as CTO of the Health and Human Services Department and later in his goverenmentwide role. The goal is that entrepreneurs will use that data to build applications and services that aid consumers, turn a profit or both.

Park listed nearly a dozen such applications during his hour-long presentation to the advisory council, including iTriage, an app that matches patients with hospitals based on their symptoms, and WeMakeItSafer, which alerts companies when a product in their inventory is recalled.

Applications built with government-gathered weather and Global Positioning System data have become lucrative businesses for companies such as Google and Apple.

The Obama Administration has released government data on healthcare, education, energy, oceans and numerous other “communities” through the site In the coming months, officials plan to update to include feedback from entrepreneurs who have used the site about which datasets were most useful, how they used those datasets and how others might consider using them, Park told council members.

In the future, he suggested, a nongovernment organization, such as the magazine Consumer Reports, might grade government datasets using similar criteria to provide an objective assessment of what information is most valuable and where there are potentially lucrative gaps in data use.

The Office of Management and Budget plans to release policy soon describing best practices for making government data open and machine readable, Park said. Agencies were required to make open and machine readable data the default for government as part of the government digital strategy released in May.

“There are a lot of smart people that work for the U.S. government but even the U.S. government is vastly outnumbered by the rest of the planet Earth,” Park said. “If you take the data taxpayers have paid for and you give it back to them in machine readable, easily findable, easily usable form . . . new applications, services, companies and nonprofits will help deliver vast benefits to the American people, grow the economy, create jobs, make the workplace more efficient and result in general rejoicing.” 

(Image via Nenov Brothers Photography/

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