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Google Unveils New Tool To Dig for Public Data

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Google launched a new search tool yesterday designed to help Web users find public data that is often buried in hard-to-navigate government Web sites.

The tool, called Google Public Data, is the latest in the company's efforts to make information from federal, state and local governments accessible to citizens. It's a goal that many Washington public interest groups and government watchdogs share with President Obama, whose technology advisers are pushing to open up federal data to the public.

The company plans to initially make available U.S. population and unemployment data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, respectively. Other data sets, such as emissions statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, will roll out in the coming months.

Google is one of a number of Internet properties, including Wikipedia and Amazon, that has been trying to make it easier to find government information on the Web.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has urged agencies to write their own "wikis," or self-edited entries, that can make government information and processes more accessible to the public. Amazon created an open data repository so developers and researchers can share data and collaborate on sifting through it. Google's Washington employees have spent the past two years visiting government agencies to urge them to make their Web sites, records and databases more searchable.

The E-Government Act of 2002 required government agencies to make information more accessible electronically, but users have complained that many agencies do not organize their Web sites so they can be easily indexed by search engines. And some agencies, Google has said, embed codes in their sites that make certain pages invisible to search engines.

"Information from government sources has been one of the thornier areas," said David Girouard, president of Google Enterprise, which includes the federal team. The new tool "is taking data, reformatting it so it's immediately consumable . . . so people don't have to go through rows and rows of data."

With Google's new tool, a Web user can search for a specific piece of data -- unemployment rates in Maryland, for example -- and a box appears at the top of the search results displaying the available relevant public data.

Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, a project within the Sunlight Foundation that uses technology to improve government transparency, said he's encouraged by Google's new tool, although he has not yet used it.

He cautioned, however, that there is no guarantee that government data is free of typographical and other errors.

He added that specific pieces of data could be misleading without a full understanding of how it fits with other information that may not be visible. For example, a Google searcher may not know enough about campaign contribution laws to spot inaccurate data entries or statistics.

Data tools should allow user feedback, Johnson said, to alert agencies to flawed data. Sunlight Labs is urging Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra to implement a feedback loop on Data.gov, a site he has proposed that would catalog public data.

"There's a lot to be wary about," Johnson said. "We don't live in a world free of typos."

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