This undesirable outcome is clearly not the intention of President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative, which calls for a presumption of openness. True, there are types of information that the government may not or should not share, including military secrets, private data about individuals, and information relevant to ongoing criminal investigations. However, the list of such sensitive information categories is explicit and limited. All other government information is up for grabs.
If you want access to such information, typically all you have to do is go to the relevant agency website, as the Obama Administration ordered them to proactively make information available to all citizens. If you can't find what youre looking for, you may make a Freedom of Information Act request. The act was passed in the 1960s, and Congress extended FOIA in 1974 as a result of Watergate. Today, the Government receives more than 500,000 FOIA requests per year, with a current backlog of more than 80,000 requests.
Typically a citizen makes a FOIA request for a particular document or other information -- Steve Job's FBI background check, for example. While such documents have a historical as well as human interest value, their worth pales in comparison to the nuggets of gold that Big Data analyses can potentially reveal.
However, it would be impossible to submit a FOIA request for a big data analysis conclusion, since there may be no way to form such a request. Big data analyses typically ask, "What are the important or interesting conclusions I can draw from these large data sets?" They don't request a particular piece of information. The best big data analytics tell you what information you should think is important, rather than expecting you to know what information is important ahead of time.
Government agencies, therefore, face two strategic big data challenges. First, they must avoid swamping relevant information with noise; second, they must let citizens request important information from the government without having to know ahead of time why that information is important. Furthermore, the larger the available data sets become, the greater these challenges will be.
Our government can talk about open data and open government all it want, but if it doesn't get big data solutions right, then we risk floundering in an ocean of irrelevant information. The Presidential Innovation Fellows have their work cut out for them.
Jason Bloomberg is the president of ZapThink, a Dovel Technologies company. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.
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