Google has introduced a new search tool, Google Public Data, that allows users to plumb the depths of tough-to-navigate government sites like the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This will make it a lot easier for reporters to dig out useful public data and for anyone to settle arguments on a fact-based basis.
The new service also uses technology from Trendalyzer, acquired by Google in 2007, to provide more meaningful trends by providing visualization tools. According to the official Google blog:
"The data we're including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers' salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on."
Since 2002, government agencies have been required to make their sites accessible to the public, but they are often dense and difficult to navigate. Dave Girouard, who heads the Google Enterprise division, told the Washington Post that the new tool reformats data "so it's immediately consumable ... so people don't have to go through rows and rows of data."
The tool is available through a normal Google search -- don't try Google Trends, which will show search trends rather than public information -- using a term such as "unemployment" and then a state. What you'll get is a graph showing unemployment in the given state from 1990 to the present. You can also compare data from one state to another -- or the country as a whole -- by checking off corresponding boxes in the left column.
That said, the tool is only as good as the data it searches (garbage in -- garbage out), and also relies on Google analysts who might not be familiar with the intricacies of all the data being sorted. Still, it's a beginning of more sunshine on government data.