Open for Whom? An Overview of Data.Gov File Formats

14 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2016

See all articles by Anne L. Washington

Anne L. Washington

NYU Steinhardt

David Morar

Elliott School of International Affairs

Date Written: April 2016


Public sector organizations have made considerable investments in data catalogs yet we have few tools to evaluate open government data implementations. While counting the increasing number of available files is one evaluative approach, we argue that quantifying file formats may best anticipate future activity. This study suggests that file formats serve as a proxy for user ability and provide insight into how government organizations imagine their data audience. The file formats available in the US federal data catalog, contained primarily PDF and HTML formats, followed by complex geo-spatial, linked, and XML semi-structured formats. These formats reveal that government organizations try to satisfy both the average user, with simple accessible formats, and the sophisticated data consumer, with structured machine-readable formats. The file formats available in the federal data catalog inform the English literate public more than the data literate who want machine-readable information. The findings raise questions about who is the audience for open government data. A broader conversation is needed about the goals of the next iteration of open data policy.

Keywords:, access, file format, standards, open data, information policy

Suggested Citation

Washington, Anne and Morar, David, Open for Whom? An Overview of Data.Gov File Formats (April 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Anne Washington (Contact Author)

NYU Steinhardt ( email )

New York University
Steinhardt School
New York, NY 10003-711
United States

David Morar

Elliott School of International Affairs ( email )

2201 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics