The OPEN Government Data Act: A Sweeping Open Data Mandate for All Federal Information


UPDATE: The OPEN Government Data Act was formally introduced by Reps. Kilmer and Farenthold and Sens. Sasse and Schatz on April 26, 2016. In a joint statement, the legislators said the bill would improve services in the public sector and support new discoveries in the private sector.

The Data Coalition, which represents the growing open data industry, was pleased to welcome the introduction of the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act by Representatives Derek Kilmer (WA-D) and Blake Farenthold (TX–R) last Thurday at a press event co-hosted with the Center for Data Innovation.IMG_9242

Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) also announced they’ll soon introduce a companion bill in the Senate. The bill text is available on Congress.gov and Rep. Kilmer’s office has published a section-by-section summary.

Simply put, the OPEN Government Data Act makes the President’s 2013 open data policy into law (see Presidential memo M-13-13). It directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats. It requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government – codifying the platform currently known as data.gov.

The Data Coalition readily endorsed this bill. “When government information is expressed as open data, it can be republished for better transparency outside government, analyzed for better management within government, and automated for cheaper reporting to government,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition, in the Coalition’s media statement. “Our Coalition members’ technologies can do all those things, but only if the information is expressed as open data instead of disconnected documents.”

Here are seven things you should know about the OPEN Government Data Act.

  1. If you read nothing else, read Section 5!

The core of the OPEN Government Data Act is Section 5, which says:

To the greatest extent practicable, Government data assets made available by an agency shall be published as machine-readable data … To the greatest extent practicable when not otherwise prohibited by law, Government data assets shall … be available in an open format, and … be available under open licenses.

Section 5 makes it the official policy of the U.S. government that all information should be published as open data, using nonproprietary formats. Section 5’s broad mandate is very good news for the Data Coalition’s policy agenda.

Section 5 would make every failure to use open data – the SEC’s clinging to document-based corporate disclosures, Treasury and OMB’s continued use of the proprietary DUNS Number, the IRS’ reluctance to move to e-filing – legally questionable.

If the OPEN Government Data Act becomes law, the federal government will certainly not change its information collection and publication practices overnight, or automatically, to conform. Section 5 is much too broad to accomplish that.

But the Coalition and other open data supporters will be able to use the law in comment letters, hearings, and public advocacy to encourage faster change.

  1. Bipartisan support means the OPEN Government Data Act has an excellent chance of becoming law.

IMG_9234The need for open data is an issue that crosses party lines in both the House and the Senate.

According to Rep. Kilmer, the OPEN Government Data Act “will empower the government to be more effective, private sector to innovate, and public to participate.” The breadth of potential uses of valuable public-sector data excited Rep. Farenthold, a former computer and web design consultant. Farenthold told Thursday morning’s audience: “We need to get the full value of what the government has done!”

Sen. Schatz said, “[In Washington] we don’t always agree on everything but this is about accountability and efficiency…we have found our common ground for the good of the people and of the economy.”

For the OPEN Government Data Act to move through Congress, it must next earn consideration by the committees that have jurisdiction: the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But the bill’s bipartisan footing, and Rep. Farenthold’s and Sen. Sasse’s seats on those two committees – give it an excellent chance.

  1. Industry experts and nonprofit advocates say the OPEN Government Data Act is necessary – but not sufficient – to transform government.

At the event, Hollister moderated a panel discussion featuring Kat Duffy, director of Sunlight Labs, Tim Day, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, Jed Sundwall, head of open data at Amazon, and Joshua New, policy associate at the Center for Data Innovation.IMG_9261

Day pointed out that the OPEN Government Data Act is a “rational policy to create jobs and promote innovation,” as traditional manufacturing companies increasingly see themselves as technology data companies. Duffy described the bill’s central finding that government “information presumptively should be available to the general public” (Sec. 2 (a)2)) as “magic language” that “should be inherent to the fabric of our country.” Sundwall simply remarked that the “availability of open data is kind of like oxygen” for Amazon and other web infrastructure companies.

The OPEN Government Data Act – if it becomes law, and if agencies follow the law – will unlock information that can drive new business opportunities for all sorts of companies, and new advocacy platforms for all sorts of nonprofits.

But while echoing the bill’s opening statement that “[g]overnment data is a valuable national resource” (Sec. 2 (a)(1)), New underscored that there are many potential users who don’t yet understand the potential of open data.

  1. While Section 5 is sweeping and broad, Section 7 provides a practical mandate: agencies have to create and maintain inventories of their data assets.

While Section 5 of the OPEN Government Data Act will provide a sweeping mandate that all federal information should be expressed as open data, Section 7 provides a more practical requirement:

[E]ach agency … shall develop and main an enterprise data inventory … that accounts for any data asset created, collected, under the control of, or maintained by the agency.

President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy already requires agencies to do this. Section 7 gives that requirement the force of law and extends it beyond the Obama administration.

Agencies’ data assets are as diverse and extensive as the work of the federal government itself. Sundwall, commenting on the exercise of opening up government data sets: “it can seem kind of endless.” As he pointed out, agencies may not even fully understand what data they have.

But the process of publicly accounting for data assets creates a dialogue between different agencies, and between the government and the public. The Sunlight Foundation’s Duffy said, “[I]t is very useful to see the world of information in one agency over another.” Data inventories allow the public to zero in on areas of value, encourage agencies to clean up messy databases, and ultimately reduce inter-agency duplication.

By making the 2013 inventory process permanent, said the Center for Data Innovation’s New, the OPEN Government Data Act helps ensure that public data “will be available forever,” and provides a way to authenticate data.

  1. The legislation fits with the DATA Act and Financial Transparency Act  – and may reinforce them.

The Data Coalition generally avoids generalities (repetition intended!) in its policy campaign. We advocate domain-specific policy changes that deliver immediate value to government, society, and our members.

We also avoid buzzwords!

The Coalition successfully advocated for the passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014, the nation’s first open data law. The DATA Act requires the federal government to express spending information as open data.

The Coalition is currently supporting the Financial Transparency Act (H.R. 2477), which would transform financial regulatory information into open data.

The OPEN Government Data Act is different. Rather than focusing on a particular domain, like spending or financial regulation, this bill applies to all the information the federal government collects and generates.

So, for the Data Coalition, what’s the value of supporting such a broad mandate? Because it can reinforce the specific ones.

If the OPEN Government Data Act becomes law, we’ll be able to point to it to resolve questions about interpreting the DATA Act or the Financial Transparency Act.

For example, earlier this year, a GAO report revealed that the White House is trying to reinterpret the DATA Act to be much narrower than Congress intended. If the OPEN Government Data Act were in effect, it could help prevent such narrow reinterpretations from ever being offered in the first place.

The OPEN Government Data Act also will provide a pathway to advocate open data transformations in areas where there’s not yet a specific law – like the IRS’ nonprofit tax returns or the Justice Department’s foreign agent registration forms.

  1. This is an anti-DUNS law – because it bans proprietary standards.

FullSizeRender-2The federal government is starting to move away from its dependency on the proprietary Digital Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number to identify grantees and contractors. Because the DUNS Number is proprietary – itself owned by a contractor, Dun & Bradstreet – nobody can use spending information without purchasing a license. That means, even after the DATA Act, spending data won’t yet be fully open.

Section 5 of the OPEN Government Data Act scores a direct hit on proprietary data standards like the DUNS Number. Section 5 requires all agencies to publish their information “open formats,” which are defined in a way that excludes the DUNS Number, and to publish information under “open license,” which means the information has to be available at no cost.

Section 5 says agencies only have to do this “to the extent practicable,” and there’s surely a good argument that switching away from the DUNS Number all at once wouldn’t be practicable.

But as the government continues to evaluate the best way to track hundreds of thousands of grantees and contractors, the OPEN Government Data Act will offer one more reason why it should reject the DUNS Number and adopt an identification code that is freely available.

As the Center for Data Innovation’s New pointed out on Thursday, the DUNS Number makes it harder than it needs to be for agencies and private-sector watchdogs to track spending. The OPEN Government Data Act will help break the dependency.

  1. Coalition members can use government information to deliver better transparency, better management, and automated compliance – but only if the information is expressed as open data. The OPEN Government Data Act will be a powerful catalyst for business opportunities.

The Data Coalition sees consistently-structured, consistently-available government data as the key to a multitude of federal management, financial oversight, and regulatory challenges.

Our members’ technologies can republish government information for better transparency, analyze it to enable better management, and automate reports to reduce compliance burdens. But all these technologies only work on open data. They don’t work on documents.

For our members to pursue their business models, and deliver benefits like transparency, better management, and automation, the government has to decide to adopt standardized formats and consistently publish its information in the first place.

The OPEN Government Data Act, by offering a legal mandate for data standardization and publication, will hasten the transformation from disconnected documents to open data.

As Sunlight’s Duffy put it in her closing remarks, “The idea [is] that this is the public’s data….it would be so nice to no longer be debating the virtues of open data, but to instead be talking about ways to do that.”

In coming months, the Data Coalition will be working to encourage legislators to co-sponsor and the committees of jurisdiction to consider, and pass, this bill.