What do you get when you join up machine-readable representations of federal government agencies’ strategic plans and spending on IT resources? Expressing these as Linked Data adds value in that it becomes easier to correlate and mash up information, and even to determine how or whether technology implementations are helping to achieve agencies’ big-picture goals.
At next week’s Semantic Tech & Business Conference in Washington D.C., George Thomas, Change Agent at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will discuss connecting these dots in a session entitled, Realizing the GPRMA using Government Linked Data. The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 requires that agencies publish strategic plans, which they’re often doing as Word or PDF documents, on their websites. Meanwhile, the IT Dashboard website is the space for federal agencies to provide details of federal information technology investments. “So the idea of using Linked Data to realize GPRMA suggests we can do better in connecting or linking the strategic goals with the IT resource expenditures,” says Thomas.
Concepts in the Object Management Group’s Business Motivation Model (BMM) open standard fit right into the domain of agencies’ strategic plans: The BMM talks about classes of objects related to business plans such as vision, mission , strategy, tactics, goals, and objectives, he notes. BMM is expressed in the Unified Modeling Language (UML), and, says Thomas, “it turns out that for many semantic web practitioners it’s pretty straightforward to represent a UML model in something like an RDF schema vocabulary or OWL ontology.” A couple of years ago he created an OWL version of BMM, which agencies can leverage today in their quest to make machine-readable representations of the information they must publish as part of regulatory requirements. In combination with putting the power of Linked Data implementations behind information that feeds the IT Dashboard, it can become easier to understand how what money is spent on federal IT investments equates to how effectively agencies are fulfilling their strategies.
“All this information is currently out there but it’s not easy to match it up, to see how they are related to each other,” Thomas says. “Our assertion is that if turned into government Linked Data, it is much more valuable.”
There isn’t a ton of federal effort going on in the Linked Data direction just yet. But it makes sense to have sites such as the IT Dashboard and performance.gov, which provides accountability data on the Administration’s efforts to streamline and smarten government, and other federal web venues to serve as visualizations of data that could be collected or published to data.gov. “So data.gov becomes kind of the data subsystem and the other websites are just views into particular data,” he says. “And if agencies start to use open government directed mandates/open publishing with a bit smarter approaches to published data (read Linked Data), that would facilitate all this.”
Right now, Thomas says, things are still at the stage of just introducing the technology to the government reporting stream, demonstrating what it would look like, and how it would work and be better, faster and cheaper as an approach. It’s unlikely that there will be regulation to mandate Linked Data methods, but guidance could come from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that encourages it. “The federal chief architect generally develops consensus with agency chief architects on how this reporting gets done, so there’s opportunity to do that,” he says. “If the OMB put out guidance to publish as Linked Data, that would certainly be a key driver. But in the absence of that it’s about demonstrating value and catch-as-catch-can in the evolution towards doing better data.”
Realistically it’s a multi-year case of building momentum, with big agencies such as Thomas’ own HHS and the EPA leading the charge by figuring out how useful Linked Data is. “That raises the visibility of what they do and it’s the tendency for some CIO or chief architect somewhere to say what’s that and should we do it too. That’s where we are right at the moment,” he says. Even if the upcoming elections lead to an administration that is less committed to publishing open government data for citizens or interested third parties to leverage, he expects that the trend to exploring Linked Data to fulfill reporting requirements will continue to pick up speed. Says Thomas, “Agencies have to say what they do, and report on spending. That all stays the same regardless of whether we have a great set of open government data champions as in the Obama Administration and its elected leaders. But it will take awhile. Like all things, government is just a collection of lots of people and it takes time for them to figure out whether something someone else is doing is useful to them.”