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Data.gov Turns Five

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When government technology leaders first described a public repository for government data sets more than five years ago, the vision wasn’t totally clear.

“I just didn’t understand what they were talking about,” said Marion Royal of the General Services Administration, describing his first introduction to the project. “I was thinking, ‘this is not going to work for a number of reasons.’”

A few minutes later, he was the project’s program director. He caught onto and helped clarify that vision and since then has worked with a small team to help shepherd online and aggregate more than 100,000 data sets compiled and hosted by agencies across federal, state and local governments.

Many Americans still don’t know what Data.gov is, but chances are good they’ve benefited from the site, perhaps from information such as climate or consumer complaint data. Maybe they downloaded the Red Cross’ Hurricane App after Superstorm Sandy or researched their new neighborhood through a real estate website that drew from government information.

Hundreds of companies pull data they find on the site, which has seen 4.5 million unique visitors from 195 countries, according to GSA. Data.gov has proven a key part of President Obama’s open data policies, which aim to make government more efficient and open as well as to stimulate economic activity by providing private companies, organizations and individuals machine-readable ingredients for new apps, digital tools and programs.

Nick Sinai, deputy U.S. chief technology officer, said the site has had to respond to shifting needs of the White House. “An untold story around government is just how evolutionary data.gov is,” he said Monday at GSA. He held up the website as an example of one that has had to be "more nimble and agile and constantly interacting with users.”

Jeanne Holm, Data.gov’s open data evangelist, elaborated on the evolving priorities. “Originally it was all about the data and only about the data and the number of data sets,” she said, recalling concerns about the value and impact of data sets. “All of us have been challenged over the years to strive beyond the way we see data to see how others will get that data as well.”

Data.gov turned five on Tuesday. What it will look like in another five years is anyone’s guess but one thing seems certain: the amount of data and the possibilities for it will only grow.

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