The U.S. government is one of the largest repositories of public information in the world.
It collects data on everything from pet ownership and bathroom remodeling to congressional votes and political contributions.
The sheer volume can be overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be, according to an influential group of technology experts who are pushing for governments to further digitize public data and make it easier to access.
In a two-day brainstorming session at O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, a group of 30 industry leaders from the head of Google's public content division to the founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society hammered out eight guidelines that define what an open government looks like in the Internet age.
Their goal is to make public information easier to access, and their guidelines have already attracted interest from as far away as New Zealand as well as cities across the United States and Congress.
"This is part of our broader initiative to get government online," said Carl Malamud, a Sebastopol resident who helped force the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to put corporate financial documents online in 1994.
Notably, the group did not necessarily call for an improvement in government Web sites when they met in early December. Rather, the group wants access to the vast amount of publicly-available data stored digitally by governments -- allowing entrepreneurs and innovators to present public data in unique ways.
Malamud's efforts with the SEC opened the door for companies such as Google and Yahoo to gather information about publicly traded companies and make it freely available on their Web sites -- everything from same-day SEC filings to stock quotes and insider sales by corporate executives.
Advocates want the same to happen with everything from congressional voting histories to crime reports and court opinions.
"If they have data available, they need to make it available with these eight characteristics," Malamud said.