Long before steam engines and turbines carried us swiftly over the oceans, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve on a ship found something to do ashore: aggregate the data from shipping logs.
When Matthew Fontaine Maury started analyzing those logs and mapping them onto charts, he found previously invisible patterns in the data that showed patterns in weather, winds and currents. In 1855, he published this knowledge in a book, "The Physical Geography of the Sea."
He also made a crucial decision for navigators around the world: After he collected the data, Maury then shipped them to anyone who wanted them, and he asked for contributions in return. Over time, it became a worldwide project. Maury saw great value in publishing the data "in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all." Notably, President John Quincy Adams agreed. Not long afterward, the United States created standards for reporting meteorological data and endowed the U.S. Naval Observatory.
In many ways, Maury's work and the government's codification and release of this data sets the stage for the historic moment we find ourselves in. Around the world, people are still using government weather data when they travel, though few consult nautical charts. Instead, they tap into the growing number of devices and services that make open data more actionable.
For instance, think about how you use the mapping apps on an iPhone or Android device. That glowing blue dot places you in time and space, enabling you to know not only where you are but how to get somewhere else. In more than 450 cities around the world, when you look for mass transit options, the routes and even departure times for the next train or bus show up on that interactive map as well.
That glowing blue dot exists because of a series of executive decisions made by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who decided to progressively open up the data created by the satellites in the Global Positioning System to civilian use, enabling a huge number of location-based technologies to make their way into the palms of citizens around the world.
Now, we may see even more life-changing technologies as a result of open government data. Last week, the White House released an executive order that makes "open and machine readable" the new default for the release of government information. This is perhaps the biggest step forward to date in making government data - that information your tax dollars pay for - accessible for citizens, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others.
President Obama announced the order on a trip to Austin, Texas, where he met the founder of StormPulse, a startup that uses weather data for risk analysis. "This kind of innovation and ingenuity has the potential to transform the way we do almost everything," said Obama.
From health information to consumer finance, government data is slowly making its way out of file cabinets and mainframes into forms through which it can be put to good use. Much of this data is of fundamental interest to citizens, from the quality of the food we eat, to the efficiency of our appliances, to the safety of the cars we drive. During Hurricane Sandy, open government data feeds became critical infrastructure, feeding into crisis centers and media maps that amplify them to millions of citizens searching for accurate, actionable information.
While all those efforts laid a foundation, the new executive order is at once more legally binding and specific. It sends a clear statement from the top that open and machine-readable should be the default for government information.
Howard is a Washington-based journalist who writes about the intersection of government, technology, and society.