Home PublicationsCommentary Recap: What Can Be Done to Protect Endangered Government Data?

Recap: What Can Be Done to Protect Endangered Government Data?

by Michael McLaughlin
Endangered Data Week

Federal government data is vital to citizens, businesses, researchers, civil society groups, and journalists.  Yet recent events, such as efforts to scrub mentions of environmental concerns from federal websites and politicize the 2020 Census by asking about immigration status, have put government data at risk. On Tuesday, February 27, the Center for Data Innovation gathered a panel of experts to discuss the importance of government data, threats facing the availability of such data, and how to address the risk as part of Endangered Data Week.

Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, and the discussion moderator, began the event by noting there are few evidenced-based policies to reduce gun violence. The problem is not that no interventions work. Rather, there is a lack of good data. Congress has limited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun control and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from collecting information from owners or dealers on assault rifles, thereby creating an environment where there is “very poor government data about gun ownership and gun violence.” According to Castro, government data has long served the role of being an authoritative source of information about our economy and society. Recent attitudes concern him though. “Instead of having an honest fight over policy, some people are waging a war on data.” He argued that the way to address this problem is to create a culture and norms for how government agencies collect and manage data.

The panelists stressed why open government data is so important, referencing its power to solve problems and answer questions. For example, Denice Ross, a public interest technology fellow at New America and former senior advisor in the Obama administration, described how cities leverage American Community Survey data to identify areas with vulnerable populations to set up cooling stations in extreme heat. Data is critical to a functioning society, and Paul Farber, managing director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, noted that “Access to data is access to power. It’s the ability to understand what you inherited and what you are shaping.” The influence of such data extends to individuals’ political lives as well. According to John Thompson, executive director at the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (COPAFS) and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Census data helps create fair and accurate redistricting that affects our elections.

At the beginning of the Trump administration, though, many people in the open data community were concerned that the era of open data was over. Organizations such as Data Refuge hosted advocacy events to raise awareness of data as an asset. Partially as a result, Ross noted that the concerns of losing data have not been as bad as feared, though serious concerns remain about how the government can and is restricting access to open data, such as by releasing fewer tables or datasets with less metadata. Farber added that diverting links to inaccessible portals also creates barriers. Consequently, panelists stressed the need for the open data community to vocally support protection efforts because of these concerns. As Patricia Kim, co-founder at Data Refuge summed up, “If the will is not there, the data is not going to flow as freely.”

One of the imminent data problems is the 2020 Census. The Trump administration’s proposed funding for it is $262 million short of the Census Bureau’s total-cost estimate for the survey and concerns about questions the census should ask has mired the agency in controversy. One challenge is that the upcoming census will be the first one where many individuals are expected to submit their responses online. But as Gavin Baker, assistant director of government relations at the American Library Association noted, “The Bureau has not had the funding, the staff, the leadership it has asked for to be able to make sure that transition is managed well.” Moreover, the Department of Justice has asked the agency to include a question about citizenship status, which many believe would lead to lower response rates. Thompson noted the potential cost of low-response rates, stating “If there is an inaccuracy with the 2020 Census that will be with us for ten years.” Questions the Census Bureau will ask will be released by the end of March.

Panelists also discussed ways to protect endangered data. One way is for state and local governments to take more responsibility for keeping data open. For example, seventeen cities decided to make copies of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency climate change data available on their own websites. In terms of legislative policy, Baker outlined the ongoing effort to pass the OPEN Government Data Act. The law would codify many aspects of President Obama’s 2013 executive order to make data more accessible. The House has passed the legislation as part of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017. The Senate passed a different version of the OPEN Government Data Act during a previous session, but it has not yet taken up the new House legislation.

The way government agencies collect and communicate data is also vital, and the types of metadata agencies create can affect quality and limit interpretations. According to Kim, “Data is not useful unless people use it.” That is why storytelling—developing use cases for positive leveraging of data—is important. It is those stories that can help influence lawmakers to advocate for open and better data, according to Thompson.

Open data has been crucial to positive economic and societal advancements, and the federal government has significantly improved in making it available to the public. Recent examples of data restrictions, however, are concerning. It is unclear if high standards for the availability and quality of government data will be maintained to overcome future attacks on data.

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