US Open Data Legislation: The Right Way to Open Data at the Federal Level

Open Data Legislation

The US Congress is working on Open Data legislation to protect current Open Data policy. While this all sounds good, it is also important to lay out a clear picture of what has been done so far to detect the right Open Data legislation opportunities.

This All Sounds Great

Congress is stepping up to protect Open Data! When I read this I was struck by two feelings: Elation, and Surprise. The Center for Data Innovation published the who and what of this legislation on April 16, 2016. Quoting from the article:

Sponsored by Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Blake Farenthold (R-TX) in the House and Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) in the Senate, the bill would make changes to the U.S. Code to institutionalize open data best practices, such as publishing government data, by default, using open and machine readable formats and with an open license that imposes no restrictions on reuse. “Open by default” has been a mainstay of the open data movement for years, and for good reason: there is simply no way to reliably foresee the potential value of every government dataset until the public has access to it.

There you have it. The Center for Data Innovation also cites the McKinsey report touting the national open data initiative “open by default” represents real economic and transparency value for the public. It also cites the reason for the legislation: There is no assurance that open data will survive to the end of the current administration. That it might not survive without legislation is true. That this effort has yielded what was promised is something that has been debated for 5 years.

One of my Open Data Colleagues, Dr. Dennis D. McDonald had this to say:

Unless we address the following two things about open data openly and aggressively we will fail — again: (1) how does making open data relate to (or support) the goals and objectives of the government programs that generate the data, and (2) how much will open data cost and who will pay?

This is a well thought-out and concise description of the problem. The executive orders, while made with the best of intentions and certainly ground-breaking, did not deliver on the promises made.

One Tiny Problem: Has US Federal Open Data Delivered?

There has been noise on the local scene and from Civil Society Organizations that transparency has not been what Federal Open Data is all about. In fact, some scholars have debated whether transparency is really a smoke screen enabled by “Open Data”.

The Promise of Open Data

Sharing government information in open, accessible and structured formats can substantially increase transparency and accountability in public policy design and implementation. Furthermore, it enables broad social engagement in the process. Hence, opening data and acknowledging the demands of the population that arise from this is essential to promoting social equality and effective public administration.

Open Data as a Precursor to Open Government: Not Sufficient but Necessary

The Yu and Robinson article “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government'” was something I read a few years ago. I disagree that the edge of open government is going away. Yes there are datasets being published that have nothing to do with accountability. Yes there are open data initiatives that stand up a few datasets and call it “open”. This does not mean that all or most open data professionals do this. This whole line of “government versus the people” is one of the reasons Public Sector Agencies (PSA’s) have trouble getting open data initiatives launched in the first place.

The main issue is the disconnect between PSAs and the private sector. There is little, if any, discussion on the value-add of releasing these data. This is not purely a government issue. Private sector, with a few shining exceptions (BuildingEye for example) have shied away from using or even trying to use these data. PSAs see this lack of engagement and fail to rise to the occasion. This causes many PSA open data efforts to stagnate.

What are the Opportunities in Legislation for Open Data within Open Government?

The how and why of Open Data was first discussed in the 8 Principles of Open Government Data published in 2007 and it has increased its importance in government, civil society and developers´ communities. In 2009 President Obama on his first day in office issued his first executive order requiring agencies identify and release “high value” datasets. This had an unintended consequence of some agencies participating and flooding with what were arguably “high value” datasets and some not participating. In 2013 M1313 Executive Order mandated that all data be open “by default”. But did that really happen?

Using a Framework to Which the US is Already Committed: The Open Government Partnership

The United States reached another important open government milestone in 2014 when President Obama signed legislation passed unanimously by the U.S. Congress, requiring Federal agencies to publish their spending data according to clear standards that will help improve the quality of government information, help inform government decisions, and make government work more efficiently for the American people.

In 2011, the US and India became the original co-founders of the Open Government Partnership, The OGP. The OGP is an international body with an oversight committee that observes the progress being made by member states. Participating governments are accountable to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), which are involved in the writing of writing National Action Plans every two years, and advise governments on how to fulfill their OGP commitments. Should Congress put Project Open Data into law or should they use a hybrid approach by blending OGP commitments with the existing Project Open Data infrastructure? At the very least, our OGP commitments should be addressed by Project Open Data, and datasets supporting those OGP commitments should be the rubric of “high value”.

The third National Action Plan (NAP) was published late 2015 by the White House OST to the OGP. The goals stated therein mention accessibility issues and codifying web standards. Check it out for yourself. These action items will increase accessibility to government services. But do they increase access to information on what our government is doing?

Open Data Legislation Opportunities

Raising awareness among governments and civil society of the usefulness and potential of Open Data in public policies, furthering awareness of the importance of Open Data, as well as supporting its use and fostering new data opening initiatives are the expected results of Open Data Legislation in the United States.

Taking this into account, Open Data Legislation should include strategic activities aimed at our OGP commitments:

  • Defining the regulatory framework for the implementation of Open Data at the Federal Level
  • Defining policy and technical guidelines for the implementation of Open Data that could have benefit for organizations at the state and local level.
  • Redesigning and improving the functionality of public facing Open Data portals.
  • Disseminating information on the topic of Open Data and encouraging third-party development of applications using Open Data.

Let’s go open some data with the right legislative approach.

Photo: Credit Martin Falbisoner


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