Data.gov Evangelist Jeanne Holm is doing something never before tried in the federal government – creating a virtual world via social networking tools rather than face-to-face meetings.

That world is a compilation of issue-oriented web-based communities providing previously unavailable or hard-to-reach government data. Holm’s effort offers the federal government an example of a new way of working, without management silos and the tedium or expense of on- or offsite meetings.

Holms says it works even though she has no authority over any of the workers. But it comes with tight deadlines and a commitment from participants to collaborate and cooperate.

“I can’t fire anyone. I can give them praise for doing it right,” said Holm, who is based in Los Angeles where she engineers and develops the site. “We rarely speak face-to-face. The virtual organization works through a strategy, writes documents together, comes up with something everyone feels they can commit to and asks the communities to move forward.”

Data.gov, made up of communities that provide information dealing with everything from workplace and consumer safety issues to health care and the environment, is being built in a collaborative effort by numerous federal agencies under the direction of Holm, on leave from NASA where she’s the chief knowledge office.

She works with an in-house staff of five and with dozens of employees from other agencies throughout the government who weigh in on what data to make available for the public to see. Her official title: data.gov evangelist.

Holm gathers interested participants from the agency suggesting a new community, others in government, the private sector, academia and industry and starts her initial virtual sessions with seven questions. Among them: Who is missing from the conversation, what’s your vision and what kind of activities will be conducted on the site (forums, blogs, wikis, ranking, rating, challenges or apps).

Holm also identifies one to three participants to take the lead in developing a new community for data.gov. These leaders are motivated by a desire to succeed in making their data widely available and easy to use. Those engaging in the process have homework and come back to the next virtual meeting with more information to share with the group.

“When done effectively, a virtual organization can be extremely powerful because you are able to get the very best people, independent of geography or traditional organizational boundaries,” Holm said. “Open government is the motivating factor,” Holm said. “Most people understand that something has to change. I try to give them support and tools to make that change.”

As the project develops, information is put on Google docs. And the team works through the information and comes up with a plan, she said. The average length of time for creating a data.gov community is six weeks – from a decision by agencies that they would like to proceed to the time it is launched. The longest one to develop took five months, she said.

Once the ideas are put in place, Holm starts building the site herself. “It starts to become clear what the site will be, what kind of content and data,” she said.

The results so far have been positive.

An initiative of the Obama administration, data.gov has grown from 47 datasets in 2009 to 445,000 high value datasets today on such diverse subjects as auto safety, air travel, air quality, drug safety, nutrition, crime, employment and health care. The data reaches across 172 federal agencies, and is accessible to the public to help make informed decisions.

Data.gov has been getting 160,000 visitors a month in 2012. Last year, it logged 1.3 million visitors and 3.8 million page view. There are now 15 separate communities on the site with three additional ones coming online a month. The latest – Supply Chain – went online on Sept. 4.

There are two ways an agency can publish datasets on Data.gov, explained Marion Royal, the program manager for data.gov.

For geospatial data, the agency reviews the metadata. When it’s approved, it’s placed in a known location where it is validated by Data.gov officials and published in the geospatial calendar. For non-geospatial data, the agency submits the data in web form or a spreadsheet. The metadata is approved by the agency and validated.

The goal is to publish the metadata on Data.gov within 24 hours of approval from data.gov.
Peter Tseronis, the Department of Energy Department CTO and co-chair of the Energy.data.gov community, can testify that the virtual system works. His community was developed through virtual brainstorming sessions with the Department of Defense and other agencies interested in sustainable issues.

“It’s not difficult to do,” Tseronis told Breaking Gov. “It’s a sign of the times. We are working collectively and holistically. Our community has grown.”

The public likes it too. “It avoids people having to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The government does it for you,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive Vice President of the Professional Services Council.

“You can search by agency or topic. Periodically I put my own name there, and see what the government knows about me,” he said.