How Obama’s Open Data Order Could Save Lives, Energy Costs And Make Cool Apps

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Readers may have noticed this morning that their geekiest politically oriented friends are freaking out like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Today, the big man in the White House signed a rare executive order that all federal data be made freely accessible in a form that can be utilized by software developers, lovingly known as “machine-readable format.” Below, we compiled a list of some of the coolest applications developed with government data and, below that, a brief explainer about why this new initiative matters.

1. Global Position System Data: If you’re a fan of Google Maps, then you can thank Ronald Reagan for releasing the government’s satellite data to digital cartographers. After Korean Airlines Flight 007 was notoriously gunned down over Soviet Airspace in 1983, the Gipper thought it was strategic for airlines to be able to locate any plane in real time. Now, GPS is used in everything from maps to Yelp.

2. Saving Lives: San Ramon, Calif., firefighters worked with local hackers to develop an iPhone app that automatically locates the nearest CPR-certified citizen to a heart-attack happening near them. And the potential for more life-saving apps is huge. Harvard’s Info/Law blog surmised that patient heart attack data related to the now defunct Vioxx drug could have saved 25,000 lives by giving researchers a larger dataset from which to identify negative side effects.

3. Energy Savings: Americans are well-known energy hogs, but sometimes that’s because energy is ridiculously cheap and we’re too busy to think about how to reduce. The Simple Energy mobile app plugs into San Diego’s open-data smart grid and alerts users to how their own energy use compares to their neighbors’. In one pilot, the competition led to an 11 percent reduction in total energy use.

Described as having a “high geek quotient” by his staff, President Obama failed to inspire federal agencies to open up more of their data to the public in his first executive order in 2009, the Open Government Directive. This new directive has more teeth, and mandates that open data be integrated into all new projects, including a set of tools on the popular social developer site GitHub. Essentially, the burden is now on federal agencies  to explain why they haven’t released a dataset, upping the incentive to just get it done.

Open Data expert and journalist Alex Howard reminds me that the new data could also allow Google to give competition to expensive, entrenched government data analytics companies, such as Bloomberg and Lexis-Nexis.

It’s a step in the right direction. Now we’ll see if the execution follows the optimism.