The federal government has been on an open data kick for some time. But over the last few years, initiatives have moved from just pushing information into the ether to promoting crowdsourcing, and citizen science — helping people use the data and, in turn, helping agencies meet their missions.

"Open data from the U.S. government is an important national resource, serving as fuel for innovation and scientific discovery," Kristen Honey, policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a Feb. 5 blog post. "It is central to a more efficient, transparent and collaborative democracy."

Honey looked back on the efforts of the last year and identified five "milestones and successes" achieved in 2015:

Hiring data scientists

Last year, the administration appointed the first White House Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil, and several agencies followed suit. Honey noted the Commerce Department, Environmental Protection Agency and General Services Administration all hired data scientists or chief data officers in 2015.

Data making a difference

Those data scientists and others in and out of government helped develop several data-powered tools that now help citizens make better decisions. Some of those tools include the College Scorecard, which rates universities based on how likely graduates are to find a job; an app to help communities implement the Fair Housing Act; and the White House Police Data Initiative, designed to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Updates and improvements

Agencies released more data in 2015 and developed new platforms for some existing systems to enable more access to data sets. The U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative added information on federal production and federal revenue by company to its data sets and OpenFDA added a "direct download" option to help users get access to better data.

Several new open data platforms were launched, as well, including: Open.NASA.gov, PatentsView.org and a new Amazon Web Services-hosted service for NASA's Landsat images.

Website dashboards

The government is even pushing out data about the sites they’ve created to push out data. GSA The General Services Administration launched two governmentwide dashboards last year: Analytics.USA.gov, which provides data on federal website traffic, and Pulse.CIO.gov, which tracks adoption of HTTPS website security.

Public engagement

Pushing out tons of data is great but the effort is useless if people don't know about it. Toward this end, agencies held several events in 2015 to promote their open data efforts and encourage public involvement. Those events included the 2015 Health Datapalooza, Transportation Datapalooza, Third Annual Safety Datapalooza, Mental Health Hackatons, Accessibility Hackathon, the White House Mapathon and eight separate open data roundtables.

"It takes a village to transform open data into actionable knowledge and societal value," Honey said. "Like data science, open data is a team sport, united by the shared purpose to responsibly unleash the power of data for the benefit of the American public and maximize the nation's return on its investment in data."

Honey said there is much more coming in 2016. "'Team Open Data' will continue transforming open data into knowledge, into action."

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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