Dev

Data.gov’s makeover will keep it from becoming HealthCare.gov

A screenshot from Data.gov

Above: A screenshot from Data.gov

You can count the team behind Data.gov on one hand, but the site is a rare example of a government tech project that works.

Earlier this week, program director Marion Royal announced some tweaks to the site to make it easier to use on web and mobile. Data.gov initially launched in May 2009 with just over 40 data-sets, but it now contains over 100,000.

Marion Royal and Hyon Kim from Data.gov's development team

Above: Marion Royal (left) and Hyon Kim from Data.gov

Image Credit: FCW.com

Data.gov was a passion project of Federal Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who announced the creation of the website in his first days in the Obama Administration.

In a March 2009 conference call, Kundra explained how the site would “democratize data and … help us think through how we address some of the toughest problems in the public sector.”

Data.gov’s data-sets are easy to search, and they are available to download to all. The administration founded the site with the values of openness and transparency in mind. In the early years, Data.gov’s team was primarily focused on compiling information; now it concentrates on making this data more accessible.

Similarly to a handful of the state-run health insurance exchanges, Data.gov runs on WordPress and other open-source platforms. It was initially built on Drupal.

According to Peter Slutsky, a director of platform services at WordPress parent company Automattic, Data.gov is not a paying client of the WordPress VIP platform. However, Slutsky is passionate about the project, and has been informally advising Data.gov for the past six months.

“Our goal is to advance the call for open-source and WordPress in government,” said Slutsky, who added that cofounder and new chief executive Matt Mullenweg is on board with these efforts.

Slutsky hopes that Data.gov continues to serve as a useful resource for journalists, policy-makers, teachers, and entrepreneurs.

An update has been in the works since May. Data.gov made a commitment to release a slew of new services, including improved data visualization, mapping tools, and API access for developers.

Since it launched, Data.gov’s team has reached out to entrepreneurs building civic applications. The site lists over 35 apps that developers made using Data.gov data-sets. Some of the best known of the bunch include Red Cross’s Hurricane app, which gives people real-time information about natural disasters, and SF Way, which contains information about things to do in San Francisco.

In a phone interview with Slusky, I made a comparison between Data.gov, which is simple to use, and the poorly designed (but steadily improving) HealthCare.gov. While slew of federal contractors built the Affordable Care Act’s main site, a team of in-house programmers created Data.gov, with support from the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

“This is one of the key reasons that it worked so flawlessly,” said Slutsky. “We rarely hear about the quality of the developers and designers employed by the federal government.”

The site asks developers for their help fixing any bugs and improving the site. Developer may find updates to the infrastructure on GitHub.

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