U.S., India take step toward launching Data.gov in a Box

The White House has published the first smatterings of computer code for a project that will grow into a ready-made open government data platform for other nations, White House technology leaders said Monday.

The project, called Data.gov in a Box, is a joint venture between the U.S. and Indian governments and is based on the United States' Data.gov site and India's India.gov.in. The U.S. undertook producing the platform as part of its national commitments under the international Open Government Partnership.

The platform is scheduled to be complete by August 2012.

The purpose behind Data.gov is twofold: first, to create a single site for proactively disclosing government information and, second, to publish data in a standard and easily readable form that private sector and nonprofit developers can rework into Web and mobile applications.

Several nations already have developed similar open data sites, including Data.gov.uk and the French government site Data.gouv.fr, which was launched Monday.

The Open Government Partnership is a voluntary association of about 50 nations aimed at sharing best practices. India was an OGP steering member but dropped out before the association's official launch.

Other U.S. commitments include new websites such as Foreignassistance.gov, where agencies that administer foreign aid will be required to post detailed project and budget information.

The U.S. plan also includes several low-tech initiatives such as improving response times to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Transparency can be a tricky process, as evidenced by 17 pages of comments OGP recently published responding to its own draft policy on information disclosure.

No commenters accused OGP of violating its own transparency principles, but several urged the organization to be clearer about information it would proactively publish and assistance it would give people requesting information.

The Centre for Law and Democracy, a Canada-based international human rights organization, objected to an exception to OGP's presumption of disclosure for information "received with an explicit expectation of confidentiality."

That wording, the center said, "essentially grants a veto over disclosure to the provider of information, regardless of any objective rationale for this or of the presence of absence of any risk of harm."

The center also criticized other exceptions, including for information that could inhibit candid dialogue among OGP and governments or civil society groups and "internal, predecisional policy documents that are not available for public consultation."

Both exceptions are far too broad, the organization said, and could easily be abused.