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President Barack Obama delivers a speech on the economy at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Tuesday.
updated 12/8/2009 4:32:51 PM ET 2009-12-08T21:32:51

The White House on Tuesday instructed every federal agency to publish before the end of January at least three collections of "high value" government data on the Internet that never have been previously disclosed, an ambitious order to make the administration as transparent as President Barack Obama had promised it would be.

It was not immediately clear what types of information the government will make newly available under Tuesday's order. It said the material must increase accountability, improve the public's understanding about the agency's mission, create economic opportunities or be in high demand by the public.

Researchers and data experts speculated about what might be published and compared lists of their most-wanted records.

"As far as what these sets are going to be, we're trying to figure that out," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation.

Allison noted that whatever is disclosed would necessarily already exist on government computers in data form, not in collections of paper documents, because of the quick deadline the administration set for itself.

"Nobody is going to pull together thousands of pages and put them in a database within 45 days," he said.

Open government advocates praised the plan.

"We've been saying the agencies should be listening to what the public asks for," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive, a private organization that seeks disclosure of government secrets.

All the new data collections will be added to the government's Web site, data.gov. It offers more than 1,000 sets of data, but some are merely archived lists of government press releases. Others include lists of toxic chemical amounts released in each U.S. state and territory, tax-exempt organizations, earthquakes, food or toy recalls, immigration data, petroleum prices, Treasury bill rates and more.

Video: The next 24 … Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the directive will make the government more accountable to the public — with access to government data that "for too long has been shielded from view by excessive secrecy and outdated technologies."

Fuchs, the lawyer for the National Security Archive, wondered whether the White House will seriously monitor the agencies' activities and whether the public will care enough to point out when agencies aren't following the rule.

The wish list by open government advocates is extensive.

Among the desired items: analysis by the government's national security apparatus of foreign broadcasts around the globe — a vital, unclassified source of knowledge about foreign affairs, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. The analyses are produced by the Open Source Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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