Senate committee vote shows OPEN Government Data Act has broad, bipartisan support

(Image credit: Sunlight Foundation)

Sunlight is thrilled that the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the OPEN Government Data Act by a unanimous voice vote yesterday. We hope that the full Senate takes up and passes the legislation soon, and that the House moves the identical companion bill, H.R. 5051, forward soon as well. This legislation would codify an expectation into law that the Sunlight Foundation has been advocating for since we were founded a decade ago: Public data created with taxpayer dollars should be available to the public in open, machine-readable forms when doing so does not damage privacy or national security.

We’re not alone. Sunlight stands with trade groups, transparency advocates and industry in endorsing the OPEN Government Data Act, including the Data Coalition, Center for Data Innovation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Taxpayers for Common Sense and BSA/The Software Alliance.

“I’m pleased that this bipartisan open data bill is heading to the Senate floor,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “In the age of Uber, data isn’t an abstraction and Washington needs to understand that innovation moves at the speed of information. Taxpayers are already paying for this data — let’s ensure that it is accessible and transparent.”

Making government data available to the public is not a new idea, nor a new practice in the federal government. The principle behind open data goes back to our nation’s founding, when the Constitutional Convention made the U.S. Census Bureau a core part of how we understand ourselves. Today, census data is used by journalists, businesses, academics and millions of American to know who we are, where we live and how we are changing. In the 19th century, our military and scientific agencies collected and published data about the winds, currents and weather, enhancing both commerce and our growing understanding of the natural world.

In the 21st century, federal government agencies collect extraordinary amounts of data about every sector of our economy, from energy to labor to education to finance to campaign finance to foreign influence to the environment. Other data, collected and disclosed by regulators, can protect both consumers and the public interest. Administrative and performance data, when it’s machine readable, can provide critical insight to policymakers about the efficacy of programs, the evidence that advocates need for reform, and the documentation that auditors want to reduce waste and fraud.

Far too often, that data has sat locked up in file cabinets or servers, hidden in proprietary documents or legacy systems that were never designed to export the statistics workers accumulated, much less hold up under the demand of search engines and the interest of curious citizens online. The OPEN Government Data Act is an important step toward making our government of the people, for the people, more open and accountable to the people. We’re thrilled to see that so many senators agree and urge their colleagues to join them.

“When data is truly open and accessible, we can grow our data-driven economy and give the public more information about how their tax dollars are being spent,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “Government should help spur innovation, not slow it down. This is about accountability and transparency and making sure that we empower individuals and the private sector by giving them the information they need.”