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Congress is Stepping Up to Protect Open Data

by Joshua New
From left to right: Rep. Farenthold (R-TX), Sen. Schatz (D-HI), and Rep. Kilmer (D-WA)

By all accounts, the open data policy implemented by the Obama administration in May 2013 has been a tremendous success. In just a few short years, federal agencies have published almost 160,000 data sets on Data.gov that support an estimated $1.1 trillion a year in economic value, power tools that can help overcome some of the most pressing social challenges facing the country (1, 2, 3), and increase transparency and accountability in government. However, despite open data’s obvious benefits and wide bipartisan support, there is no guarantee that it will remain a priority for the federal government in the years to come. Fortunately, Congress now has an opportunity to ensure that open data is here to stay: the Open, Permanent, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, unveiled at an April 14 event hosted by the Center for Data Innovation and the Data Coalition, would codify the publication of open data as an official responsibility of federal agencies, signaling to businesses, civil society, and the public that open data will forever be available as a platform for innovation.

Sponsored by Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Blake Farenthold (R-TX) in the House and Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) in the Senate, the bill would make changes to the U.S. Code to institutionalize open data best practices, such as publishing government data, by default, using open and machine readable formats and with an open license that imposes no restrictions on reuse. “Open by default” has been a mainstay of the open data movement for years, and for good reason: there is simply no way to reliably foresee the potential value of every government data set until the public has access to it. So rather than only publish data agencies think might be valuable, they should strive to make all of their data freely available unless there is a legitimate reason not to, such as privacy and security considerations or protecting the intellectual property of companies that do business with the government. Additionally, the bill would direct agencies to create publicly available enterprise data inventories—a listing of all of their data sets, both public and nonpublic. This is important because though agencies were directed to publish such a listing in February 2015, very few agencies have done so, making it difficult for agencies and members of the public alike to understand what kind of data the government actually owns and assess agency progress on publishing open data. Finally, the bill also directs agencies to engage with industry, civil society, journalists, and other members of the open data community to understand how it can better deliver open data, allowing for continuous improvement of agency open data practices.

Though the OPEN Government Data Act is primarily a legislative continuation of good policy, codifying open data requirements for the federal government is nonetheless a very big deal. For the wide variety of companies that rely on open data, “the availability of open data is kind of like oxygen,” said Jed Sundwall, global open data lead at Amazon Web Services (AWS), in a panel following the bill’s unveiling. Without a Congressional guarantee that open data will always be around, AWS and countless other companies’ business models would be in jeopardy. And Tim Day, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, noted that the bill is a straightforward, rational step to promote innovation, particularly as traditional industry increasingly relies on data to improve their operations. From a transparency perspective, as Kat Duffy, labs director at Sunlight Foundation noted, language in the bill acknowledging that data should be open by default is essential to the very fabric of democracy in the United States. Finally, the bill’s requirement to use open formats for government data would eliminate the headaches caused by reliance on proprietary data standards, which limit interoperability and transparency.

The Center for Data Innovation has long been the foremost advocate for comprehensive federal open data legislation, and it is encouraging to see a diverse group of policymakers take action to secure the benefits of open data. The OPEN Government Data Act will be introduced in the House and Senate the week of April 24.

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