Open Data Advocates Unlock Major Road Map to Federal Data

The White House Office of Management and Budget confirms it will release a data index of all federal agency data holdings in the first week of March.

What sorts of data do federal agencies have? Up until this month, that question was unknown to most citizens.

On Feb. 6, however, the White House Office of Management and Budget confirmed through a letter to the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group, that it would release a comprehensive index of all federal agencies’ data holdings. The news is being hailed as a big win for open data advocates who now have a road map for high value information that can be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the first week of March, the index, which is a compilation of all federal agency data indexes, will be released to the Sunlight Foundation.

Matthew Rumsey, Sean Vitka and John Wonderlich, the foundation’s federal policy and transparency advocates, announced the White House’s cooperation in a blog post on Feb. 9.

“For the first time, the United States government has agreed to release what we believe to be the largest index of government data in the world,” the three wrote.

Equally noted was the fact that it took a FOIA request, 14-months-worth of petitioning and the threat of a lawsuit to make it all happen. Initially, the OMB stalled on delivery and attempted to redirect Sunlight’s request to individual agencies themselves. Sunlight protested, arguing such a move was unnecessary considering all agencies were already required to submit internal data indexes, also known as Enterprise Data Inventories, to the OMB on a quarterly basis — part of a mandate from the president’s 2013 executive order on open data.

Despite the lengthy process, Sunlight commended the OMB for its partnership.

“We were ready to fight for the idea that government data cannot be leveraged to its fullest if the public only knows about a fraction of it,” the three wrote.

Once received, next steps will be to scan the indexed data sets for future FOIA requests. Likewise, Sunlight will review possible reasons for redacted information. Under FOIA's exemptions, agencies can withhold information for classified documents, individual privacy, trade secrets and law enforcement interests, among other reasons.   

Despite these caveats, however, the move is groundbreaking in that it sets a precedent that the data indexes will be released, and more so, that they’ll be released on a continual basis.

“Rather than wondering what data the government has," Rumsey, Vitka and Wonderlich wrote, "we are all now in the position of policing how completely agencies are indexing their data, deciding what to publish, and determining why some data cannot be public."

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