A Bid for Open Data

Published: January 16, 2019


The issue of open federal data has been in the limelight for some time, with recent measures calling for increased availability and use of the data.

The sharing of government data has long been seen as effective in use by those outside the public sector. In fact, the U.S. federal government is one of the top collectors of data and is a valuable resource for many audiences. Making the data usable, or in other words ‘open,’ helps to improve transparency and quality of life as well as effectiveness of government operations. While the federal government makes available its data in many ways, the most obvious are the datasets found at Data.gov. The website boasts more than 190,000 datasets from across 76 federal agencies and subagencies and 56 state and local entities.

The current administration has underscored the value of making federal data available. Within the President’s Management Agenda, the second CAP goal is dedicated to “data, accountability and transparency” with an action item to implement a federal data strategy to standardize and implement federal data for further open use. The CAP goal also calls for improvement in the dissemination of federal data using understandable formats and maximizing the accessibility of all non-sensitive government data.

The OPEN Government Act Enacted

More steps have been taken to make federal data accessible. On Monday, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Act of 2017 was signed into law. The new legislation, which primarily calls for data-based policymaking, includes the OPEN Government Act, calling for the publishing of all federal data in a machine-readable format. The Act also requires agencies to maintain “comprehensive data inventories” of this open data, to be overseen by appointed Chief Data Officers.

Open Data Projects

Several specific initiatives for open data are already underway, especially enlising private sector help with the managing and processing of federal data. Many of these initiatives can be found at the Department of Commerce. The NOAA Big Data Project is a set of Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAS) between NOAA and selected industry partners to make available their federal data, without exclusion, in exchange for cloud computing capabilities, to make NOAA’s data more readily available.

Likewise, Commerce has proven to be a hub for other federal agencies to enlist the help of industry for innovative uses of federal data, particularly open data. For instance, The Opportunity Project at the Census Bureau is a process in which agency problem statements are provided to industry partners by the Bureau in order to create new digital solutions through use of federal data. Moreover, the National Technical Information Services (NTIS) at Commerce serves as a joint venture authority for agency data problems, reaching out to groups of industry partners to design the solutions, according to an interview with NTIS Director, Avi Bender.

Shutdown Impacts

Despite the increased calls for open data throughout federal agencies and open data projects peppered throughout the government, the partial government shutdown has put a halt to some of these operations. Typically during a shutdown, the only IT systems that may remain operational at unappropriated agencies are those essential to the agency’s functions. Typically, government open datasets do not fall under this category. Data-centric agencies under the Department of Commerce, including NOAA and the Census Bureau, are unable to make available updates to their data. Likewise, data.gov, which GSA manages, is currently inoperable with an error message to greet website visitors. While most organizations that use these datasets still have access to previous data from their own or other sources, a long term shutdown lacking new, updated data from the government will result in negative impacts for open data.