The Case of the Missing DOT Data

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The Department of Transportation has been a leader in complying with recentopen government initiatives, so I decided to use the agency as a case study to measure the amount of data agencies are posting on Data.gov. I found some pretty surprising things – namely, that they are not in compliance with a presidential memo, their own reporting pledge, or even their self-imposed deadline.

Backing up for a minute, President Obama’s January 18, 2011, Regulatory Compliance Memo mandated, among other things, that:

First, agencies with broad regulatory compliance and administrative enforcement responsibilities, within 120 days of this memorandum, to the extent feasible and permitted by law, shall develop plans to make public informationconcerning their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities accessible, downloadable, and searchable online….

Second, the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Chief Technology Officer shall work with appropriate counterparts in each agency to make such data available online in searchable form, including on centralized platforms such as data.gov, in a manner that facilitates easy access, encourages cross-agency comparisons, and engages the public in new and creative ways of using the information.

The DOT was among the first agencies to release the required report, which they did in May 2011. The report is succinct, clear, and public (unlike some of the other plans), with detailed charts identifying information already available to the public (47 data sets), information already available but where release practices could be improved (16 data sets), and information not available to the public at all (26 data sets). The charts conveniently include exact URL locations for the information that is available. We even based some of our suggestions for the Open Government Partnership’s U.S. National Action Plan on DOT’s plan.

But what if you were looking for this data without the help of the “Department of Transportation Draft Preliminary Plan for Implementation of The President’s Memorandum dated January 18, 2011 Regulatory Enforcement and Compliance Data May 2011” report?

You might try looking on Data.gov. While in theory that should be a good choice, you would not be successful.

There are just three DOT data sets listed on Data.gov, not one of which overlaps with the 89 data sets listed in the DOT report. While perhaps it could be argued that not all of the 89 information sources listed in the report are actual data sets, this is still a striking discrepancy.

Confusing? You bet.

The report states that the “six DOT modes that have broad enforcement and compliance authority: 1) FAA; 2) FMCSA; 3) FRA; 4) NHTSA; 5) OST; and 6) PHMSA as higher priority for upgrading and including in data.gov.” When I looked at each of these data sets in turn, there were no data sets available for any of these “higher priority” modes. Of the six, only NHTSA had any data sets available.

The report also states that:

As part of this effort, we linked up modal enforcement and compliance personnel with our DOT Data.gov working group to: A) Determine if the information or data sets comply with DOT Order 1351.34, Departmental Data Release Policy, by ensuring data are identified and registered in the Department’s S/DAG Metadata Registry (our choice of a central platform, http://www.data.gov.)

I went to check on DOT Order 1351.34, and quickly found out that it is not available anywhere online, despite being a public document. After a lengthy process I was able to retrieve a copy through using DOT’s online contact tool.

  • The Reference Desk responded, sending me a direct link to the only instance on regulations.gov where “DOT Order 1351.34” was found. This turned out to be just a link to the DOT Regulatory Compliance Report, where I had originally found the order referenced.
  • Another back and forth provided me with a link to the order, accompanied by a comment from their Reference Desk, “I think I got it. Took a while…” This link turned out to be internal-only and would not load.
  • Another back and forth and the Reference Desk explained that they had a PDF they could send me which was labeled “public,” but “that might just mean that the entire DOT is allowed to see it,” so they had to check.
  • After checking internally, they sent me a PDF of  the order.

And let me say a huge thank you to those people over at DOT’s Reference Services, for patience and perseverance on my behalf. 

But it should not have been that hard.

According to the order:

Data may be released through DOT Web sites. When data are released through a DOT Web site, such data must also be disseminated through one of the e-Government initiatives identified in Section 34.4.5.2 below.

The order then lists options for the e-gov initiatives where data can be disseminated:

  • FedStats.gov,
  • Data.gov,
  • Geodata.gov,
  • USASpending.gov, or
  • ITDashboard.gov

As the report clearly states, DOT chose Data.gov to host its regulatory compliance data. The report also sets a deadline for when data sets should be placed on Data.gov: “the end of Fiscal Year 2011.” That’s September 30, 2011.

It is now October 18, 2011 – nine months after the memo was released, five months after the DOT report was released, and almost a month past DOT’s self-imposed deadline. Based on the standards established in President Obama’s Regulatory Compliance Memo, DOT’s Regulatory Compliance Report, and DOT Order 1351.34, it seems clear to me that by now there should be many more data sets posted on Data.gov.

Open government is not always easy, and it takes perseverance, patience, and even courage to stick with it and get it right. And time and time again we have seen that it is worth the effort. If DOT is the best we’ve got, then all I can say is that we most certainly have a ways to go.

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