Reasons (Not) to Release Data


Earlier this year, Sunlight was issued a challenge: Collect and refute the most common reasons not to release data.*

As many open access advocates, journalists, and government employees themselves will tell you, there are a variety of “no’s” given when the question of data disclosure arises. Many are predictable, some are political, some personal, many practical, and all deserving of attention. Pioneers looking to move their government toward exploring and advancing information release have already come up with rebuttals to many of these refusals, but the collective knowledge is hard to share, usually trapped in email groups, discussion boards, blogs, and the memories and experiences of individuals.

So, we’re going to meet our challenge with an experiment.

We’ve been informally crowdsourcing the most common 50-ish reasons not to release data that have been heard by those working both inside and out of government on the federal, state, and local level in the US. The reasons, as you can see below, run the gamut from staff training concerns to the ever-looming specters of privacy and security to the persistently optimistic (“It’s already public [in a filing cabinet downstairs].”). This list is not comprehensive, but it’s an informative start and a useful tool for dissecting the rationale behind and resistance to releasing data — as well as some of the information gaps that exist around the benefits of opening data. It also gears us up for the next step in our experiment: responding to these challenges.

This is where you come in.

We want to help expand the dialogue and deliberation around the decision to release government data by offering responses to the challenges listed below. Although many of these issues are new or complex, the answers don’t need to be. Sometimes, of course, the right answer is that some data should not be released, but this needs to be a confident determination, not the default option for all data. Understanding rationales for nondisclosure should help us overcome them, whenever possible.

To this end, we’re pooling responses to from a variety of real experiences — ours and others — and we want to hear from you. If you’ve tried/explored/succeeded/failed and otherwise made attempts to open government data at any level of government and have faced some of the challenges below, please share how you responded with us. We’ll be compiling answers for a series of blogposts later this month, and answers can be submitted anonymously. Feel free to make comments on the list below (which you can also access here) or get in touch with us directly at

*Thanks to Christopher Wink at Philly for this idea!