What Obama Did for Tech: Transparency and Open Data

Data.gov went live in 2009 and was the first platform to deliver federal data to citizens, civic hackers, academics and anyone else seeking insights from government information.

by / September 29, 2016
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Editor's note: This story is part of a six-part series on how Obama has, over the last eight years, elevated the profile of IT in the public sector. He taught government how to ride the technology bicycle, so to speak. A future president who neglects technology won’t be able to make it forget the skills taught through the influence of Silicon Valley and startup culture, said Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer.

Before “open data” became a catchphrase for innovation there was Data.gov, the first open data portal for federal agencies. Under the direction of President Obama and the guiding hand of U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, the site went live in 2009. It was the first platform to deliver federal data to citizens, civic hackers, academics and anyone else seeking insights from government information.

In the beginning, it could arguably be described as an experiment. Yet its growth soon became an inevitability as the Obama administration, along with bipartisan research and transparency groups, latched on to the site as a persuasive tool to drive policy with data. The site has gone on to publish more than 180,000 data sets from federal agencies, embracing a belief long held by successful companies like Google and Amazon that information supersedes the heated emotions and rhetoric of politics.

It’s this idea that fueled the president’s 2013 executive order urging agencies to make open data a default practice. Since then, the White House has leveraged technology and data to find solutions to a host of pressing societal problems. Some of these prominent works have included the Police Data Initiative, which partners with police departments to publish crime data, the Opportunity Project, which publishes open data apps to assist citizens, and coordination of the National Day of Civic Hacking, an event that encourages data-driven hackathons in communities in all 50 states.

Yet it’s probable that the greatest gift that Obama will leave transparency advocates is a set of fundamental policy shifts. During his last term in office, he signed two defining pieces of legislation: The first law requires agencies to publish expenditures in a digital format, and the second holds agencies accountable for public record requests.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), signed in 2014, established a historic precedent. Unlike most open data policies that merely encourage, this law mandates that officials publish finances online in a standardized, machine-readable format. Because of the bipartisan DATA Act, a host of financial information — including payments, procurement contracts, budgetary actions, monetary assistance and management reports — is all set to be published on Data.gov starting in May 2017.

Similarly, in 2016, the president signed a bill that to transparency lobbyists represented a much needed update to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the nation’s first open public records law. On July 4, 50 years to the day after that law was passed, the president signed the FOIA Improvement Act, an amendment to the original that adds a “presumption of openness” to all records that are not protected or classified. The distinction places a burden of proof on the agencies that seek to withhold information to present a valid reason why records, if released, would cause foreseeable harm. Prior to the law, agencies could deny record requests from journalists, researchers and watchdog groups by citing FOIA exemptions without proof.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.