Written bySamantha Ehlinger
The Defense Department isn’t known for being the most open agency in federal government, but its Digital Service team is seeking to change that through a new website it officially launched Wednesday, data.mil.
The DOD may have had an open data program but it hadn’t gotten a lot of attention, said data.mil site creator Mary Lazzeri to FedScoop. Defense Digital Service Director Chris Lynch says the goal with data.mil is to showcase a potential open data strategy to the department while collaborating with startups in the field to create interesting stories with the data instead of just posting it online.
The DDS created data.mil “to sort of jumpstart the notion within the Pentagon that open data is worth investing in,” said Lazzeri, who is part of the Defense Digital Service.
The site is starting with a dataset called the Theater History of Operations, known as THOR, “a painstakingly cultivated database of historic aerial bombings.” The initial rollout includes data from World Wars I and II, with the Vietnam and the Korean War to come in the near future.
While data.mil is only starting with several theaters from THOR, DDS staff wants to open other data in the future, Lazzeri said. She said they think the public would be interested in aggregated personnel data, for example, including career trajectories of those in the service or demographics data. The group is also looking at maybe releasing budget information, logistics and acquisition data and perhaps some scientific records in a limited way.
“One of the kind of unusual things our website is trying to do is not just market itself outside of the Pentagon but inside the Pentagon, because we’re asking other components [for data],” she said.
This site, Lazzeri said, can facilitate others inside the Pentagon opening up their data.
The appeal of THOR
The THOR data is interesting in part because it has data that goes back to 1918, Lazzeri said, noting it has been used throughout the Pentagon to educate pilots.
“You can see what types of weather the pilots were flying through that day, and in their own words, the bomb damage assessments from the bombs that they dropped,” she said, later adding, “It’s got a lot of angles we thought people would be interested in.”
Notably, the site is not just a place where the department posted datasets for download — it includes information to help explain what the data is and even shows some examples of what can be done with it, Lazzeri said.
“We’re not going to try to be a comprehensive repository of all datasets throughout the Department of Defense,” she noted. “So we want to pick interesting ones in which we can tell a good story.”
Key to the Defense Digital Service’s strategy with the site was partnering with one startup, LiveStories, to create a different look-and-feel for the site, and another, data.world, to create a community and conversation around using the data, Lynch said to FedScoop.
As Lynch is quick to note, the partnership with startup LiveStories helped DDS create a website that does not look like a traditional DOD webpage.
He noted, “It’s a curated story and I think that that is the approach that we felt more comfortable with. Just putting data out and having zero public interest in what you’re doing or even awareness that the data exists I think limits the audience and the usage. And I don’t think it captures the intent of what you’re trying to do with open data.”
Lessons from Data.gov
The government’s catalogue of open data, Data.gov, notably began with a totally different strategy: breadth over depth. And while the site has seen the opening of many government datasets, it has also been subject to some criticism for its usability and success at reaching intended audiences.
U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil noted in a recent interview with FedScoop that from Data.gov’s launch, government staff had been trying to figure out how to create a good user feedback model.
“No one’s figured out a good way to make that scalable on a website,” Patil said. “And so there’s versions of it that we’ve tried over time and that’s going to have to continue to iterate and try.”
But when asked if he thought data.mil might one day lead to a change in Data.gov’s approach, Lynch said the goal first is to show one success story.
“If this was something that made us rethink the entire Data.gov strategy and all of the things that are going on around that, that would be amazing and fantastic, and I hope that’s where it goes,” he said.
The digital service team, notably, is trying to establish a feedback loop through multiple directives on its site, and through partnering with data.world, a social collaboration space for data scientists.
Through that partnership, the organization has designated a place where people can collaborate around the site’s data, Lazzeri said, to discuss the data, run queries and share their work.
As one official from data.world noted to FedScoop, “traditional portals tend to be very flat,” a place where people come to download the data, not collaborate.
Director of Business Development for data.world, Len Fishman, told FedScoop the DDS approach to the site is very “forward-thinking,” utilizing all the best practices learned from Data.gov‘s journey, as well as the trajectory other agencies’ open data work has taken.
Data.mil launched quietly last week with no press, and it has already attracted military historians, data scientists and more to the collaboration page on data.world, Fishman said.
In its approach with data.mil, Fishman said, DDS has focused on “engaging the community right from the outset.”
But that engagement also helps DDS, and the department do its work, Fishman noted, as it establishes a feedback loop that gives them insight into how people are using their data.
“The agencies haven’t had great visibility into the [return on investment] of their data,” he noted, adding that granular information on the data’s use “is what will really assess the importance of your data.”