U.S. government's open data proves a treasure trove for savvy businesses

Cindy Waxer

Yet for all the IT leaders spearheading today's open data revolution, many argue that it's time the U.S. government played a greater role in the collection, cleaning and sharing of data. In fact, open data services provider Socrata reports that 67.9% of the everyday citizens surveyed for its 2010 Open Government Data Benchmark Study said they believe that government data is the property of taxpayers and should be free to all citizens. Such sentiment has already prompted the U.S. government to launch new services through its Data.gov website, enabling visitors to easily access statistical information. But that hasn't stopped techies from drawing up a laundry list of open data demands for government officials.

"A standard structure, a standard set of identifiers, greater data cleanliness, releasing data in a database-friendly format, making it machine-readable, making sure we can use the data without restrictions — these are all ways that government can improve the data they're supplying," says Ryan Alfred, president of BrightScope, a provider of financial information and investment research.

Alfred has every right to grumble. He spent "five long years" huddled in public disclosure rooms at the Department of Labor poring over paper-based retirement plans and auditors' reports before launching BrightScope. Today, his San Diego-based company sells Web-based software that provides corporate plan sponsors, asset managers and financial advisers with in-depth retirement plan ratings and investment analytics. Many of BrightScope's ratings are published online for free, while advisers and large enterprises fork over anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 per year for highly sophisticated and customized prospecting tools.

Open Data Advocates
Despite privacy concerns and questions about the security of open data, there's no shortage of organizations, from government entities to nonprofits, pushing for greater access to public information. Here are a few examples:

Data.gov: The home of the U.S. government's open data.

Open Institute: A Kenya-based think tank of domain experts that provides open data advisory services.

Open Knowledge Foundation: A Cambridge, England-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting open data.

Socrata: A provider of open data and government performance products that are designed to make data more accessible and easy to use.

The GovLab: A New York University research center that seeks new ways to solve public problems using advances in technology and science.

Sunlight Foundation: A nonprofit organization that provides tools, policies and recommendations to drive greater government openness and transparency.

- Cindy Waxer

A team of nearly 15 data analysts processes more than 60,000 retirement plans per year while integrating data captured from SEC filings, financial industry regulatory authorities, census data and public websites. Once collected, the data is then cleansed and linked together using proprietary mapping algorithms.

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