Home PublicationsCommentary Don’t Let Open Data Go Dark

Don’t Let Open Data Go Dark

by Joshua New
Government Shutdown

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

Flu season had just begun in October 2013 when the federal government abruptly shut down because Congress had failed to pass a budget. Among the many public services that suddenly went dark was the Centers for Disease Control’s nationwide “FluView” program which provides crucial flu data to public health officials. Sorry kids.

Also out of luck were drivers who could not get new car recall notices from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and homeowners who could not get accurate insurance quotes because of missing FEMA data. In fact, the budget impasse resulted in Data.gov, home of all the U.S. government’s open data, going offline for the first time since 2009.

As the federal government risks heading into another shutdown this fall, Congress should ensure that highly valuable open data will not again fall victim to politics.

Open data is even more important today than it was during the last government shutdown. As a result of President Obama’s ambitious open data effort, there are now well over 120,000 federal data sets publicly available through Data.gov. They constitute an increasingly vital resource for managing everything from the economy and public health, to disaster preparedness and scientific research. The expansion of open data has been a great boon for the economy, contributing an estimated $1.1 trillion in added value to the United States every year; for civil society groups, which can help crack down on fraud, waste, and abuse in government; and for the public, by introducing unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability into government operations. Should open data go offline again, the potential damages to the economy and society would be severe.

Without funding, the federal government is only permitted to operate services that constitute an “excepted activity” under the Antideficiency Act—activities that affect human safety or the protection of property. However, given how heavily industry and the public rely on open data for economic and safety reasons (such as timely data on infectious diseases from the Centers for Disease Control), agencies could absolutely make the case that the continued publication of certain high-value or high-priority datasets constitute an excepted activity. While the administration could hypothetically issue more rules directing agencies to identify which datasets they should publish as an excepted activity, these, like previous open data rules, could be easily swept aside by a future administration. After all, U.S. open data policy is built on executive actions alone.

The better approach is for Congress to pass legislation that codifies and improves existing open data requirements, and directs agencies to assess which of their datasets might qualify as valuable enough to publish throughout a shutdown. The employees directly responsible for publishing and maintain these datasets should also necessarily be allowed to report to work.

Additionally, Congress should prevent federal employees from taking proactive steps to make data portals, data sets, and data tools go dark in the days before a shutdown. While furloughed employees may be unable to come to work, it is counterproductive for them to go out of their way to pull the plug on open data programs before they leave. It is unfortunate and likely unavoidable that many open data programs would be lost due to a shutdown, but actively blocking access to sites and APIs could potentially sacrifice far more than necessary.

While government spending may pit Democrats and Republicans against each other, open data issues do not. In 2014, the DATA Act, which implemented open data principles for reporting government spending, passed unanimously in the Senate. With such bipartisan support for open data, Congress should take advantage of what time it has after the August recess to protect crucial open data from a government shutdown.

Image: flickr user reivax.

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