Home PublicationsCommentary Sunshine Weeks Sheds Light on Open Data Opportunities

Sunshine Weeks Sheds Light on Open Data Opportunities

by Joshua New
Sunshine Week

From March 13 to March 19, the government transparency community in the United States is celebrating the 16th annual Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to promote freedom of information and raise awareness about the importance of open government. In Washington, D.C., and around the country, civil society groups, news media, policymakers, universities, and other groups are hosting events devoted to increasing government transparency. At the Center for Data Innovation, we believe open data—government data made freely available online in machine readable formats and licensed to maximize reuse—is a necessary factor for open government and fundamental to a modern democracy.

Though the United States has established itself as a world leader in open data, there are several opportunities for the federal and state governments to strengthen their open data policies to increase transparency and accountability, empower consumers, and help solve some of the most pressing social challenges facing the country.

We invite you to read through some of the highlights of our work on open data, that lays out a number of policy options for improving transparency and openness in government.

Will Obama be the Last Open Data President?
In the seven years President Obama has been in office, he has taken a series of executive actions to establish the federal government’s open data policies. However, these actions could easily be swept aside by a future presidential administration that places a lower value on open data. Congress should pass legislation to codify federal open data policy to ensure that publishing open data remains an official responsibility of federal agencies in the years to come.

Don’t Let Open Data Go Dark
When the federal government abruptly shut down in October 2013 after Congress failed to pass a budget, federal open data programs were among the many public services that went offline. 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. Given that many open data sets are directly related to these activities, Congress’ open data legislation should direct agencies to take steps to ensure that any high priority data does not again fall victim to politics.

States Should Use Open Data to Empower Consumers
Choice engines—interactive, online tools that use machine-readable data to help consumers make more informed decisions—are a private sector staple. But while companies like Netflix and Spotify make it easy to decide what movie to watch or music to listen to based on data about consumer preferences, not all areas of the economy are as easy to navigate. State regulators can encourage the development of sophisticated choice engines for nontransparent areas of the economy, such as insurance, health care, and consumer finance, by publishing data sets that can help consumers make better decisions and by adopting common open data standards to make it easier for third parties to build these valuable transparency-enhancing tools.

Open Data Can Help Fulfill the Government’s Decades-Old Promise of Equality
In July 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched an initiative to use open data from the Census Bureau to help local and state governments fulfill the requirements of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to identify and dismantle policies contributing to housing segregation. Other agencies should follow HUD’s lead and identify other areas where they can do more to use open data to promote equality and social justice. Fortunately, the White House recently launched an initiative called the Opportunity Project to use open data to promote economic mobility.

Will Police Embrace Open Data to Restore Public Trust?
The Obama administration launched the Police Data Initiative last year to promote transparency, build community trust, and boost police accountability by calling on police departments and local and state governments to publish and analyze open data. The initiative is promising, however it currently lacks mechanisms to ensure that police departments across the country publish this data and put it to good use. As the Police Data Initiative matures, the federal government should  identify how to best tailor national requirements for police departments to publish their data.

Image: David Maiolo

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