What’s Next for Open Data in the U.S.: A Look Ahead Following the Passage of the OPEN Government Data Act


From left to right: Congressman Derek Kilmer; Nick Hart, Bipartisan Policy Center; Christian Hoehner, Data Coalition; Nick Schockey, SPARC; Alla Seiffert, Internet Association; Christian Troncoso, BSA | The Software Alliance.

When President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act (P.L. 115-435) in January, the Data Coalition celebrated a major milestone for open data legislation in the federal government. Title II of the law, the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, is a transformative open data policy that modernizes the way the government collects, publishes, and uses non-sensitive public information. The law mandates that all non-sensitive government data assets be made available as open, machine-readable data under an open license by default. The Data Coalition advocated for this legislation for over three years and it is now law. So, what next?  

The Data Coalition, Center for Data Innovation (CDI), and the American Library Association hosted a joint panel to discuss the OPEN Government Data Act’s impact on the future of open data in the United States. The Coalition’s own Senior Director of Policy, Christian Hoehner, as well as representatives from BSA | The Software Alliance, the Internet Association, SPARC, and the Bipartisan Policy Center, discussed what this new law means for government modernization, data-centric decision making, and the implementation of successful federal open data initiatives.

Congressman Derek Kilmer (WA-6-D), an original sponsor of the OPEN Government Data Act and Chairman of the newly established House Select Committee on Congressional Modernization, provided opening remarks that touched upon the bills wide-reaching benefits as well as the future of open data policy and implementation. Congressman Kilmer touted the new law’s potential to create more economic opportunity for people in more places. Greater access to government data will allow Americans to start new businesses, create new jobs, and expand access to data and resources often concentrated in urban areas.

The Congressman emphasized that the law passed with strong bipartisan support. He observed that the simple notion of giving taxpayers additional access to public data is beneficial for citizens.

“Simply put, the OPEN Government Data Act gives the data the government collects to the people who pay for it, which is all of you,” Congressman Kilmer said during his remarks. “The bill passed because people across the increasingly wide political spectrum know that making access to government data…is a good idea.”

Opening valuable government data assets will increase government accountability and transparency as well as technological innovation and investment. Under the law’s mandates, public government data will be made machine-readable by default without compromising security or intellectual property. This is a major victory for the open data movement, but as Congressman Kilmer acknowledged, this is certainly not the last step. There is still much to be done to ensure the law is successfully implemented.

While the OPEN Government Data Act draws a lot of its mandates from already established federal orders – specifically President Obama’s 2013 “Open Data Policy-Managing Information as an Asset” (M-13-13) – the law adds additional weight and formalizes a number of open data best practices. The law legally establishes definitions for “open license,” “public data asset,” and “machine-readable,” which clarify the specific assets under scrutiny in this law. As Nick Shockey of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) stated, the strong definitions behind open licensing will be great in strictly codifying data procedures around research and beyond.

Establishing these definitions was critical as it reinforces another key part of this law: requiring the publication of public data assets as “open government data assets” on agencies’ data inventories. Under M-13-13, agencies tried to establish a comprehensive data inventory, but internal silos and other barriers prevented the publication of certain data sets.

Nick Hart of the Bipartisan Policy Center drew from an example to explain the barriers. “The Census Bureau, for example, has some data that they received from other agencies. The other agencies may not have reported it on their inventory because they gave it to the Census Bureau, [and] the Census Bureau didn’t report it because it wasn’t their data.” Identifying the extent of government data assets has been a constant challenge for researchers and industry, but the open data inventories mandated in Title II will clarify exactly what public data assets the government has on hand.

The open data inventories will contain all government data assets that aren’t open by default but would otherwise be available under the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA). “That’s going to, I think, make these data inventories a lot more robust and a lot more useful to researchers as they’re trying to identify what data an agency has that might not be currently made available through Data.gov,” said Christian Troncoso, Policy Director at BSA | The Software Alliance.  

Another important aspect of the OPEN Government Data Act discussed during the event was the establishment of an agency Chief Data Officer (CDO) Council. Every federal agency is now required to appoint a CDO, and these individuals will be tasked with implementing the components of the new law. One major challenge going forward will be how federal agencies establish and equip their CDO functions. That is, will they recognize that, as the law intends, the CDO function should be distinct and independently established apart from traditional information technology leadership functions. The hope is that CDOs will build communities of practice and work with their fellow members of the Council to share best data practices that could be implemented across agencies.

In the end, CDOs will not just be Chief Information Officers under a different name. They will be the sentinels of quality, accurate and complete agency data and, hopefully, shift the culture to one of data management and data-driven decision making. As our Senior Director of Policy, Christian Hoehner said, better education about how data will be utilized by agencies and the public will help to incentivize agencies to ensure compliance with the law.

The panel served as a celebration of how far open data has come and judging by the opinions of all panelists, the government is on track to continue expanding its open data initiatives. The Federal Data Strategy and President’s Management Agenda show that the government recognizes the value of its vast stores of data. These initiatives will run parallel to the implementation of the OPEN Government Data Act, and in some cases, they will also intertwine.

These executive efforts, including a recent Executive Order on U.S. artificial intelligence, and bipartisan congressional support show that open data utilization is a government priority, and our Coalition is pleased to see action by the Executive Branch, Congress, and agencies.

While there is still plenty of work to be done once the law is officially enacted on July 8, 2019,  the passage and support of the OPEN Government Data Act is an indication that the government is moving closer to modernizing its processes and management using standardized, open data. The Data Coalition looks forward to working with the government on successfully implementing this transformative legislation.

If you would like to watch the panel, “What’s Next for Open Data in the United States,” click here



 



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