On President Obama’s first day in office, he issued a memorandum on transparency and open government declaring that “information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset” and committing his administration to “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” He made good on that promise in May 2013 when he issued an executive order on open data, mandating that federal agencies make government data open and machine readable by default.
Nearly six years later, President Trump built on Obama’s legacy when he signed into law the Foundations for Evidenced-Based Policymaking Act, legislation which included the OPEN Government Data Act, a bill that codified the federal government’s open data obligations, such as by requiring it to release valuable data sets to the public, follow best practices in data management, and make data available to the public in a non-proprietary and electronic format.
Now the Biden administration faces the task of deciding how it can continue to make progress on open data and build on the bipartisan legacy left to his administration by Obama and Trump. Here are three ways to start.
First, as a coalition of organizations, including the Center for Data Innovation, wrote in a recent letter, the administration should prioritize fully implementing the OPEN Government Data Act. While federal agencies have made important progress in publicly releasing open data, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not issued statutorily required guidance for agencies on how to create comprehensive data inventories. In addition, OMB has not established a policy to ensure agencies routinely identify and correct errors in open data.
Second, while the OPEN Government Data Act establish the role of chief data officers (CDOs) at federal agencies, and created a federal CDO Council, the administration should take a step further and establish a federal chief data officer to head the council. The federal government already has a federal chief information officer (CIO), who is officially the administrator for the Office of E-Government, which is part of the Office of Management and Budget. Congress created this position with the E-Government Act of 2002, and the federal CIO oversees IT spending and policy across the federal government. President Obama also created the position of the federal chief technology officer (CTO) within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. While both the federal CIO and CTO have played important roles in promoting open government data, it has always been one of many competing priorities. A federal CDO would be able to dedicate more time and resources to coordinating open data policy and implementation across government agencies.
Finally, the Biden administration should work to reimagine and relaunch data.gov, the open data portal for the federal government, as a collaborative workspace for the open data community. Since its launch, data.gov has served as a useful foundation for the open data efforts of the federal government, providing a single portal for individuals to access open data from various federal agencies, along with serving as a central repository for resources about how to launch, manage, and support various data projects. However, data.gov is still primarily designed to provide a one-way flow of information, rather than create the type of collaboration seen in other open environments. For example, GitHub has pioneered collaborative software development, allowing individuals to host code, contribute to existing projects, or branch off an existing code base to create something new. A similar approach to open government data would allow individuals to build on existing government data sets more easily, for example, saving multiple individuals from cleaning or converting the same datasets.
There are many ways the open data can help Biden advance his agenda—including addressing the pandemic, responding to climate change, and addressing systemic inequality—but Biden should also make advancing open data part of his agenda as well.
Image: White House