Dear Congress: Save open data

Congress should act so that the successful and popular open data initiatives will continue after a new president is sworn in in 2017

us capitol
Credit: Bjoertvedt via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Imagine a government program that helps add over a trillion dollars of value to the economy every year, reduces fraudulent and wasteful government spending, and has widespread bipartisan support. In a time when members of Congress routinely struggle to find common ground, supporting such a valuable and uncontroversial program sounds like a sure winner. Fortunately, this program exists. Unfortunately, unless Congress intervenes, these benefits may disappear on Jan. 20, 2017, when the next president takes office. 

Since 2009, the federal government’s open data initiatives have been a tremendous boon for the economy, enabling established businesses and entrepreneurs alike to develop new products and services based on government data sets. Open data also makes it easier for the public to scrutinize how the government spends its money, such as by shining a light on $3.5 billion in Medicare payments. And open data has made the federal government more responsive. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Consumer Complaint Database, which collects and shares complaints from consumers about malicious financial products or companies, is consistently one of the most downloaded data sets on

Because the Obama administration used executive actions to create the current set of open data policies, there is no guarantee that these programs will continue under future administrations. Congress should codify providing open data to the public as an official responsibility of the federal government to secure and expand the benefits for the years to come. 

Luckily for Congress, much of the work has already been done for it. The Obama administration’s open data efforts have made the United States a world leader in open data, second only to the United Kingdom. The bulk of any open data legislation could essentially direct agencies to stay the course with existing requirements. President Barack Obama’s May 2013 executive order required federal agencies to utilize machine-readable formats for government data and publish all new data by default. Subsequent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget established the specifics of federal open data policy. Codification of these requirements would not necessitate any change in practice for government administrators. 

But Congress should also take this as an opportunity to fix shortcomings in U.S. open data policy to make it even more valuable to society. First, each federal agency should produce a publicly available inventory of all of its data sets, both public and non-public. This would help agencies better manage their data and give the public more insight into what data the government actually has.

Second, Congress should direct agencies to regularly engage and collaborate with the public to improve open data initiatives. Each agency should have dedicated channels of communication for stakeholders that have concerns or suggestions about particular data sets. Agencies should also fund and assist with challenges, hackathons and civil society groups working to expand the use of open data. And agencies should develop tools to monitor and analyze how data sets are used inside and outside agencies to better understand the value and utility of different data sets.

Third, Congress should direct agencies to take the necessary precautions to ensure that particularly valuable data sets remain available in the event of a government shutdown or sequestration. Open data is frequently used to protect the public’s safety and property, such as helping health officials prepare for flu season or disseminating information on car recall notices — critical functions that agencies should recognize constitute excepted activities under the Antideficiency Act and should thus remain operational during a shutdown.. But given that open data is a relatively new phenomenon in government, it remains to be seen if these high value datasets will stay live during the next shutdown. Congress should also ensure that government employees do not go out of their way to unnecessarily pull the plug on the sites and tools that support open data in preparation.

Finally, Congress should require that open data policies apply to all agencies, including independent agencies, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration, as well as quasi-official agencies, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. President Obama’s 2013 executive order requested that independent agencies adhere to the same requirements, but since they are not subject to presidential directives, they are not currently required to deliver open data.

In this era of divisive politics, Congress should not miss an opportunity to seize onto and expand an area of bipartisan agreement, especially one with such value to the economy, government and society. Members of Congress should build on today’s open data successes and make a binding commitment for the future.

Joshua New is a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, an affiliate of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

This story, "Dear Congress: Save open data" was originally published by Computerworld.