US takes tentative steps toward opening up government data

At the beginning of this year, President Trump signed into law the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act, requiring that nonsensitive government data be made available in machine-readable, open formats by default.

As researchers who study data governance and cyber law, we are excited by the possibilities of the new act. But much effort is needed to fill in missing details – especially since these data can be used in unpredictable or unintended ways.

The federal government would benefit from considering lessons learned from open government activities in other countries and at state and local levels.

Cracking the door toward open data

Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight. The doctrine has drawn increased attention in recent years, as a growing list of nations agree to participate in a global voluntary commitment towards democratic reforms, via the Open Government Partnership initiative.

America was one of the Open Government Partnership’s eight founding countries in 2011, and the Open Government Partnership was an outgrowth of domestic open government initiatives launched in the first months of the Obama presidency.

In December 2009, Obama issued a directive requiring federal agencies to proactively publish government information online in open formats and to take other steps toward building a culture of openness around data.

This initiative launched the Data.gov website that publishes government databases, as well as WeThePeople.gov, for petitioning the government; Challenge.gov, for competing to help the government solve problems; and USASpending.gov, disclosing and tracking the federal budget.

Open government data have already produced direct impacts on Americans’ daily lives. For example, detailed city profiles offer information such as demographics, crime rates, weather patterns and home values. These data, in turn, allow developers to build more robust applications for individuals, such as health inspection app AccuWeather, which provides minute-by-minute precipitation forecasts. This allows farmers to better manage and protect their crops.

Because the Obama administration’s efforts toward openness were driven by executive orders and not legislation, they faced possible rollback by later administrations. The Trump administration’s early removal of climate science-related data on agency websites, for example, raised concerns among researchers and others about its commitment to transparency and accountability.

After the Trump administration took office, some pages on climate change, among other topics, were removed from the White House website. The Conversation US
The Trump administration has, however, recognized the value of government data for driving innovation and economic growth, holding federal grantees accountable and improving the effectiveness of public services.

Enter the OPEN Government Data Act

The OPEN Government Data Act, signed into law on Jan. 14, enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress and built directly on the Obama era agenda for openness.

Taking effect in January 2020, the act requires government agencies to make their data freely and publicly available in open formats and machine-readable, unless other considerations – such as intellectual property, privacy or national security concerns – indicate otherwise.

Agencies must also develop strategic plans for managing their data; develop a comprehensive and metadata-enriched inventory of their data, minus some national security-related data; and appoint a chief data officer to manage agency data and maximize its value to the government and the public.

In February, the White House issued America’s fourth National Action Plan. This plan echoes the OPEN Government Data Act and emphasizes the need to make federally funded science publicly available in the interest of economic growth, innovation and public health.