Congress to consider making open data the default in federal government

Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) talks about the potential of open government data.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., talks about the potential of open government data.

The arc of U.S. history is long, but it bends toward machine-readability. This morning, we saw positive signs on the long road to baking open data into the way the federal government functions and discloses information to the people it serves.

As soon as next week, the “Open, Permanent, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act” will be introduced in Congress, providing a legislative vehicle to make the open data policy of the Obama administration into the law of the land. The bill — an early draft of which Federal News Radio obtained and published online last week — is a short, clear approach to ensuring that open data endures for generations to come.

At an event hosted by the Center for Data Innovation, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Blake Farenthold, R-Texas — three of the four co-sponsors of the bill — offered their perspectives about why open data matters, followed by a panel discussion that included Sunlight Labs director Kat Duffy. (Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., is the fourth co-sponsor.) You can watch archived video of the event below:

In his remarks, Kilmer highlighted the utility of open government data, including weather and surfing apps, the societal benefits of its release, like the College Scorecard, and the potential of government data to improve government efficiency and effectiveness. “The OPEN Government Data Act will empower government to to be more effective, empower the private sector to innovate, and citizens to participate,” said Killmer.

Schatz held that citizens, companies and institutions that interact with government ought to have the basic expectation that those interactions should be as painless, expeditious and efficient as possible. “This is the public’s information, but it’s not necessarily public information until we can access it the way we want to in the digital world,” he said.

Farenthold agreed with this point, emphasizing the potential of open government data to hold government agencies accountable and create better, more efficient government.

Whether the rest of Congress wants to turn open data into law will remain up for debate until the bill is actually introduced, but the bipartisan comity on display this morning and the legislative history of the DATA Act suggests that the potential for agreement is there.

If the public is fortunate, by this time next year, Congress will have finished debating the virtues of making open data the default in the federal government and enacted the OPEN Government Act so that everyone who collects, publishes or uses the raw material of our age can focus upon how to ensure it has the greatest positive impact.