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Data.gov's next big thing: Mashing up federal stats with maps

Data.gov, the federal government's clearinghouse of downloadable information, plans to release new gadgets that will enable the public to easily create mashups of maps and statistics, according to officials working on the enhancements.

Mashups are a fusion of information and images that can illustrate relationships or patterns and, in this case, provide transparency into the business of Washington. Data.gov is the brainchild of federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who has said he envisions the website becoming an online marketplace where people worldwide can exchange entire databases and reuse content in ways the federal government could never imagine.

Within the next month, the site will offer the public a chance to preview a so-called viewer that will let them combine many of the 270,000 data sets posted on Data.gov with maps, said Jerry Johnston, geospatial information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency. For the past couple of months, representatives from various agencies, including EPA, the General Services Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, Health and Human Services Department, and NASA, have assisted in the effort to add more interactive features to the site.

"Vivek Kundra wanted to make sure there was agency involvement in the project," Johnston said. "When we first stood up [Data.gov], he said what was in my mind at the time: 'It's great that you have geospatial data in the catalog, but it doesn't mean anything to me if I can't see it.' "

With the new tools, anyone will be able to diagram in one place official statistics from across the federal government -- on everything from mortality rates to houses with substandard plumbing. Individuals won't need special technical skills to create the mashups.

The feature is made possible by Geodata.gov, a separate catalog of geographic data that USGS operates. The website will power part of Data.gov through a connection that is invisible to the user, Johnston explained. Internet users can permanently download federal maps to their own computers through Data.gov, or view them with the new mashup tool for as long as they are on the site.

He said the next goal is to make the maps available as services, which are Web applications users access through the network of the agency that provides the map.

At present, "Data.gov focuses on storing data for downloads in files," and federal officials "want to move to the next step of visualizing data," said Jack Dangermond, president of ESRI, which supplies nearly every federal agency with geographic information system software. The company is providing the viewer and linking Data.gov to the maps through Geodata.gov. The work is part of a competitive contract to build Geodata.gov, which USGS awarded to ESRI in 2004.

The new mapping capabilities will allow third parties, including nonprofit government watchdogs, the press, private software providers and citizens to discover interesting or suspicious trends and correlations such as, perhaps, a high death rate in a region where a large proportion of the population is employed by mining companies.

GIS companies, including ESRI and its competitor FortiusOne, will be able to combine the maps with their products to create custom applications that they can sell to clients. In addition, open government organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation in Washington will be able to use the services to distribute free apps. School children also will be able to create and print maps for class projects.

With its viewer, Data.gov has the potential to fulfill the three objectives of President Obama's open government initiative, said Andrew Turner, chief technology officer of FortiusOne, a mapping firm that helps federal agencies and companies visualize their business data to aid in decision-making. Obama has committed his administration to achieving greater transparency, more citizen participation in government, and increased collaboration between the public and private sectors.

"Transparency is about opening the data, and Data.gov did a really good job of that at first," when the site launched in May 2009, Turner said. "Participation -- that's pulling things off for my social networking group. Collaboration -- how do I feed this back to the government? The success from the data to the tools, along the entire way, will be dependent upon making sure that entire chain stays open."

FortiusOne and ESRI offer free consumer sites, respectively called GeoCommons and ArcGIS.com, that let users create mashups with publicly available geographic data. They work similarly to the way Data.gov will function with the viewer. Johnston said he encourages this kind of repurposing of government information, but also noted that, unlike commercial or nonprofit sites, Data.gov "gets the authoritative stamp of being a .gov site and a high-profile site."

Turner said the Data.gov tool sounds like it could turn maps into social objects -- items that instigate conversation -- in the same way the photo-sharing site Flickr has turned photos into social objects.

The initiative also could become a performance management tool by enabling agencies to push out studies and asking the public to review them on easy-to-read maps, said T. Jeff Vining, a research vice president for Gartner Research. The challenge will be ensuring agencies are reporting accurate and timely data, he said.

"I think it's knowledge management concepts meeting geospatial concepts," Vining added. In the future, he expects people will be able to download the mashup maps to smart phones and broadcast their creations using the mass text-messaging service Twitter.

"Looking at how we can add mobile applications to the mix is certainly a logical next step for the team," Johnston said.

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