It’s been more than two weeks since the White House deleted much of the public information on its open data portal, and state and municipal officials are among those watching closely to see how the fledgling Trump administration decides to handle open data.
Federal data began disappearing from the White House website not long after President Donald J. Trump was sworn in on Friday, Jan. 20, with climate change information making the casualty list that very day.
As with many other aspects of this administration, observers noticed almost immediately; but they didn’t see a wholesale loss of information from the White House open data portal until mid-February.
The matter deeply concerned Joshua New, a policy analyst for the Center for Data Innovation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute. He called the disappearance of open data a “red flag” in an op-ed piece on Tuesday, Feb. 21, for The Hill.
“While the Trump administration has not yet signaled that it will oppose open data across the federal government, its silence on the issue suggests that open data may not receive the same level of priority it has in the past,” New wrote.
In contrast, he noted, former President Barack Obama " ... declared a ‘new era of openness’ on his first full day in office and directed federal agencies to be more transparent.”
The extent of the damage is not yet known, New told Government Technology in an interview, but the implications of what could happen if a vacuum develops around data at the highest levels are very large.
“The federal government has been a huge leader in open data. We’ve been very fortunate to see an explosion at the municipal level in open data over the last couple years, but the federal government has been a leader," he said. "I think without the federal government as a leader, municipal government open data efforts will suffer.”
Not everyone agrees with the idea that municipal governments’ open data efforts will automatically suffer.
Leigh Tami, chief performance officer in Cincinnati — which debuted a new city Web portal with 15 new dashboards in December — said her city’s open data effort is going strong. Similar efforts elsewhere are likely to be sustained by their complex nature, which makes them hard to dismantle, Tami said, and by their cost effectiveness.
“I think that a lot of organizations, a lot of cities and states are finding that if they can point constituents to an open data portal, that’s saving everybody time and money rather than pulling a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests,” Tami said, noting her information on other state and local agencies was anecdotal.
Colorado Chief Data Officer Jon Gottsegen declined to speculate on the federal data situation, but also emphasized the value of making data open, centralized and easy to find. In Colorado, he said, data on underground storage tanks is maintained by the Division of Oil and Public Safety, but located within the Department of Labor and Employment.
“But if you don’t know to look for … Labor and Employment, you don’t know where to find that data,” Gottsegen said. “What I always say with our Colorado Information Marketplace is that people can find state data without having to know the nuances of the structure of state government.”
Instead of waiting for the Trump administration to codify its policy and act upon it, New said Congress should approve the Open, Personal, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, which requires government data from federal agencies be published as machine-readable, and generally available in an open format free to the public.
The act made it through the Senate during the 114th Congress’ final days, in December after the House had already left, New said, noting its support from both sides of the aisle should clue lawmakers in to its potential for a quick win.
“But it really is teed up for this Congress to get a quick win that’s good for business. I am pretty optimistic that we’ll see the Open Government Data Act passed pretty soon and I think once that’s passed, that will be the foundation for a robust open data policy,” New said.
Tami agreed the act could be a positive for public and private sectors.
“The more that we automate, the more we’re able to do, the more sophisticated our analysis is, and the more … sophisticated the information we’re able to push out is,” she said, referring to the refinement of data generation.
Gottsegen said enhanced vetting can help refine data, but warned against releasing information that may not be ready to be made public yet.
“They have data and they may feel like it hasn’t gone through the whole gamut of quality control and vetting they feel is necessary. They may not want to put it out there and have people feel like they’re doing a shoddy job. You don’t want people to expose data they’re not proud of because in the future they won’t be cooperative,” he said, describing the process of making data public.
Ultimately, New said, government data should be a “platform for innovation.”
“Their job is to put it out there since it’s a taxpayer-funded public resource,” he added.
That's exactly what Tami said she sees happening at local and state levels, with Republicans and Democrats alike driving government transparency. And the U.S. Government’s open data site, data.gov, is still functional, she noted.
“I would be a lot more alarmed if data.gov were down," she said. "But I think data has become something of a statement about how government engages with constituents, how government informs constituents."