Back in 2009, the iPad had yet to be released, Android was barely a year old, and the White House launched Data.gov, a website designed to let users view and download data collected by almost all parts of the federal government. Data.gov was redesigned slightly in 2010 but has pretty much kept the same looks and functionality since then. That's all about to change: today, the White House unveiled a preview of its new website Next.Data.gov, which it says will offer vast improvements in terms of visual design and functionality. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Google+, with a stream of card-like social media posts from various government officials and accounts.
The most obvious change Next.Data.gov brings is in the looks department. In keeping with modern software design trends, the website is flatter, sleeker and less ostentatious than its predecessors from 2009 and 2010. It also has adaptive design, which means that the site will adjust to fit the screen size of whatever device you're using, making text and buttons larger and putting content in a single-column view for smaller screens. The top spot, or masthead, will now rotate to show-off new data visualizations whipped up by different government agencies. Today's preview, for example, features a graph of the strength of every earthquake on Earth over the past week, as measured by the US Geological Survey.
"The team studied the usage patterns on Data.gov and found that visitors were hungry for examples of how data are used."
Social content also plays a much bigger part in the revamp. Below the masthead, Next.Data.gov shows off tweets and blog posts from government agencies and officials, which the White House hopes will be able to better convey just how government data is being used to serve the public. "The team studied the usage patterns on Data.gov and found that visitors were hungry for examples of how data are used," wrote White House staffers in a blog post today. The website uses the popular open source blogging platform WordPress to display content.
But there's more to Next.Data.gov than a cosmetic makeover. The website also includes a revamped, more poweful search feature that will show users suggested keywords as they type. It uses Solr, another open source platform. The emphasis on open source tools is no accident, as it's part of President Obama's larger push to get the entire government to use more open standards for storing and publishing data. (Though of course "openness" in this context doesn't necessarily mean transparency. Note that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are notably absent from the list of participating agencies on the current Data.gov). It remains to be seen whether the changes shown off today are enough to appeal beyond the software developer and researcher crowds, but the White House is clearly angling to make Next.Data.gov more generally useful than its predecessor. For now, it's just an "early beta," that only includes a few datasets, with no timetable on a full release. The White House is also taking feedback on the redesign on Twitter, Quora and Github.