Yesterday evening I posted a message to the Sunlight Labs mailing list that discussed the looming cuts to the e-government fund -- drastic cuts that could mean that sites like data.gov, USASpending.gov, apps.gov, paymentaccuracy.gov and the Federal IT Dashboard go offline altogether.
Before I go any further, let me catch the tl;dr crowd and send them here. These cuts would be a very, very bad thing. We need your help to stop them.
But it's probably worth talking about this in more depth. A few folks have responded to the news by asking: what's the big deal? Won't the data on data.gov still be available on agency sites? Won't the FAADS PLUS spending data on USASpending.gov still be obtainable through a FOIA? Won't we still be able to grab contracting data from fpds.gov?
Well, yes and no. Although agencies have been encouraged to rely heavily on data.gov for hosting, it does seem unlikely that defunding will result in data being outright deleted. Agencies will still collect information; departments will still track their spending; and I've been assured that the nuclear batteries that power Todd Park are good for at least another ten years.
Still, while nobody's going to be setting fire to filing cabinets, it would be a terrible mistake to simply shrug these cuts off. Yes, you might still be able to FOIA for a lot of this data. Is that what we want? It often takes months to have a FOIA request fulfilled. How are you going to update a project on an ongoing basis if it relies on government data and FOIA is your only tool? There's no system for distributing FAADS PLUS data other than USASpending.gov -- even that site's bulk downloads are only a few months old (before that, Sunlight was shipping hard drives back and forth to Maryland to get the data). There's no bulk download capability at all on fpds.gov. Moving back to FOIA would be hard enough for organizations like Sunlight. For many other citizens and watchdog groups, it would mean the data wouldn't be used at all.
And let's not forget the effect that these projects have had within government -- arguably, this has been even more important than the sites themselves. Are data.gov and usaspending.gov everything that we want them to be? If you follow Sunlight's blogging at all, you know that the answer is "not yet." There's still plenty of work to be done before these sites live up to their potential. But there's no question that it's been useful to tell agencies that they need to get their data in order and make it available to the public. There's no question that code written on the public dime ought to be shared within government and with the public. There's no question that citizens should be able to see how their tax dollars are being spent.
The projects made possible by the e-gov fund have helped to formalize these responsibilities. I'll be the first to admit that the work isn't yet complete: that's why public servants, organizations like Sunlight, and concerned citizens have been pushing for better data quality in USASpending and more data availability on data.gov. But the progress we've made is real. To have the clock turned back now would be tremendously disappointing -- and, given the money-saving and economic potential of some of these projects, an act of tremendous irresponsibility by Congress.