Home PublicationsCommentary Open Data Can Help Fulfill the Government’s Decades-Old Promise of Equality

Open Data Can Help Fulfill the Government’s Decades-Old Promise of Equality

by Joshua New
Housing discrimination

One of the most important laws in the fight for civil rights was the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This law not only made racial discrimination in housing illegal, but it also required all government agencies involved in housing and urban development to actively dismantle the damage segregation had caused.  Unfortunately, this requirement has gone unmet for decades, and the lingering social and economic effects of segregation remain. The Obama Administration has launched a new effort using open data to identify where these inequalities are most severe and help government agencies craft policies to combat segregation’s lingering effects—a move critics have derided as an “Orwellian-style stockpile of statistics.” Not only are such criticisms wrong, but such vicious misinterpretations of the role of open data threatens the capacity of government to use this valuable resource to advance important social issues. Policymakers should be quick to refute these arguments and support open data as a crucial tool to address the concerns of some of their most underserved constituents.

For decades, communities avoided penalties for noncompliance with Fair Housing Act requirements and could often obscure or outright ignore racial barriers, such as a lack of affordable housing or sufficient public transportation options, because there was no way to easily measure how policies influenced such barriers. To close this loophole, the Obama Administration issued new rules on July 16, 2015 that rely on a tool powered by open data to bring the effects of these policies to light. Called the assessment tool, it incorporates massive amounts of geographic and demographic information from the Census Bureau for every community in the United States, including poverty rates, public housing, public transit, and racial makeup. With hard data to illustrate the often stark contrasts in the racial makeup between neighborhoods, local governments can no longer remain oblivious or feign ignorance to the problems in their communities.

Under the new rules, cities and towns that receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), states that offer low-income housing tax credits, and city housing authorities must use the assessment tool to publicly report on patterns of racial bias in housing. If these reports, required every three to five years, do not demonstrate sufficient progress on breaking down racial barriers, or if these communities fail to set measurable goals to do so, they risk losing government funding. The objective of this rule is not to punish towns where racial inequalities exists, but rather to force municipal leaders to examine the data to see how they can improve. And, equipped with this data, HUD and other entities will finally be able to detect when communities deliberately disregard these requirements.

Unfortunately some critics have egregiously misinterpreted news of HUD making better use of data as a secretive federal power grab or overstep of government authority, rather than a means of supporting more transparent and equitable housing policies. In addition to the New York Post’s labelling the simple publication of data as “Orwellian,” Stanley Kurtz of the National Review calls the policy a “massive government overreach,” and Virginia State Senator Dick Black (R) called it “affirmative action on steroids.” Though these criticisms could be written off as partisan fighting, they nonetheless portray the practice of data-driven policymaking as radical and a cause for alarm.

On the contrary, HUD’s assessment tool uses data Americans have readily shared with the government for generations that actually makes government decision-making more transparent, not less. Using open data to guide agency decisions—where to build schools or route bus lines, for example—subjects these decisions to a high degree of public scrutiny and reduces opportunities for subversion.  And to criticize the rules as a breach of federal authority makes little sense, as they simply tap open data to improve accountability mechanisms for a law passed in 1968 that is a mainstay of the civil rights movement. While policymakers should debate the merits of various housing policies, they should all be able to agree that decision-making should be grounded in data.

It is encouraging to see HUD move beyond simply publishing data to create tools that harness its data to further its mission, in spite of these critics. Other agencies should take a similar approach and identify areas where they can do more to help others use their data for positive impact. By using open data to shape policies and guide decision making, government agencies can become dramatically more effective at solving some of the country’s toughest social problems.

Image: flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives.

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