Following a first-day promise — and amid criticism he hadn’t done it soon enough — President Barack Obama is swinging wide the doors on government data.

“Going forward, newly generated government data shall be made freely available in open, machine-readable formats, while appropriately safeguarding privacy, confidentiality, and security,” the President said in his executive order. “This requirement will help the Federal government achieve the goal of making troves of previously inaccessible or unmanageable data easily available to entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, and others who can use those data to generate new products and services, build businesses, and create jobs.”

What’s particularly interesting is how the order, following the lead of requests to the White House, specifies that the data will be in machine-readable form, as opposed to scanned images of documents or other ways that make it more challenging to leverage the data.

Examples of newly available data come from health, energy, global development, finance, safety, and education.

The announcement also includes a revamped Data.gov, the release of open-source tools to open-source repository GitHub, and various activities to help developers leverage the data.

Open data organizations hailed the announcement.

“By requiring agencies to publicly list all their data that could be made public, the President is not just reaffirming that decisions about disclosure should be based on the public interest, he’s also giving the public (and Congress) tools to enforce them, said the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to open government data. “When open data procedures are incorporated into agency processes from the start, we’ll start to see more systems designed for bulk access from the start, and we’ll be better able to recoup all the missed opportunities in legacy datasets that are still closed. We’ll be able to evaluate agencies’ transparency against what they’ve defined as their candidates for release, and clearly identify areas where agencies avoid disclosure altogether.”

The announcement is yet another example of government leadership in IT innovation.  In fact, the U.S. had been criticized by some for allowing the U.K. to take the lead in government data transparency.

In addition to being innovative on its own by the promotion of transparency, the announcement is expected to produce a new wave of business innovation as developers — and even the government itself — make use of the data to create new products and come up with new insights.

The process should be similar to that of releasing GPS data, which has led to a wave of positioning apps ranging from Google Maps to Foursquare. “Making information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable by the public can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery — all of which improve Americans’ lives and contribute significantly to job creation,” wrote government computing officials, including CIO Steven VanRoekel, in a memo describing the program.

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