A Blast from the Open Data Past

The excitement around open GPS data proved founded.

With President Obama’s release of new cross-government open data standards Thursday, I thought it would be a good time to look back at this 1996 New York Times article. (My apologies for any pay wall issues).

That’s the year President Clinton issued a policy statement clarifying that the U.S. military would not snatch away the rights to government-owned Global Positioning System data that private-sector companies had already begun using to track planes, cars and even, apparently, golf balls.

The policy statement was the open government directive of its day. It helped build a nearly $30 billion market in GPS-based products that federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and Chief Technology Officer Todd Park often cite as a model for how government information can fuel private sector innovation. At the time Clinton signed the directive, experts were predicting GPS could grow to an $8.4 billion industry by the year 2000.

VanRoekel’s and Park’s discourses on the economic value of open data can sometimes seem pie-in-the-sky -- a whole universe of eager entrepreneurs turning profits and aiding consumers in the real estate, health, energy and public safety sectors. Looking back on the early days of GPS, though, it’s amazing how on the mark some prognosticators were.

From the article:

As the expense of such systems has plummeted in recent years -- aided by the falling cost of microelectronic components -- dozens of new applications have begun to emerge. It is now possible to buy a hand-held receiver in a sporting goods store for back-country hiking for less than $200, and the price is expected to continue to decline. Designers are now focusing on a range of innovative applications that include embedding G.P.S. receivers in hand-held cellular telephones and portable personal computers.

And this:

On the horizon are applications for the handicapped and elderly. For example, one system now being developed would act as an electronic guide, using synthetic speech to allow a blind person to navigate independently.

Other uses include emergency location systems for Alzheimer's patients and systems that permit tracking of vehicles like ambulances and vans that transport the elderly.

Other, less serious applications appear to be limited only by the designer's imagination. For example, golf carts available at 30 courses around the country are equipped to provide precise data on how far a ball is away from the hole, using a system developed by Proshot Golf of Newport Beach, Calif.