Sunlight endorses ‘Open Data Action Plan’ to ensure federal transparency

The Center for Open Data Enterprise’s “Open Data Action Plan.”

The Center for Open Data Enterprise released the Open Data Action Plan detailing how opening federal government data should remain a priority for the next president. The report is a valuable resource and a useful road map for the next administration to build upon the legacy and initiatives of the Obama era. It provides a set of 27 constructive recommendations for specific federal agencies that will be actionable within the first 100 days or the first year of the next administration.

Given Sunlight’s decade of advocacy and commitment to better government through the release of open government data, we strongly endorse this report and recommend it to the transition teams.

Our endorsement does, however, come with some caveats.

On transparency

We see many recommendations at federal government agencies that are focused on economic and social outcomes aligned with mission, not transparency and accountability. When we read a quote endorsing the report that “increasingly, open data isn’t about transparency,” we know that there’s a risk of openwashing.

This is a mistake. While the economic impact of open data releases is important and politically attractive to politicians who wish to tout job creation, the social impact of open data should be of paramount concern to our government. Sunlight has collected examples of the social impact of open data and measured their impact in a way that should inform further commitments and initiatives.

While we strongly support institutionalizing open data initiatives, it’s critical that transparency and accountability aren’t discounted as we discuss open data in the context of a new administration, particularly given the prominence of these issues on the campaign trail and our politics.

On that count, the absence of journalism and publishers from the introduction of the Open Data Transition Report is unfortunate: These infomediaries are the key vector by which open government data delivers accountability. Particularly when combined to deliver data-driven journalism over the internet. ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, NPR, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg and FiveThirtyEight are all major users of government data. Not to mention, government data is elemental to most of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in last decade.

We are concerned that the next administration might cite this report as justification for embracing the aspects of open government data that are more comfortable and less oppositional as a check to power or accountability for a systemic failures. If open data showed, for instance, lead poisoning in a community but an agency didn’t act to mitigate it for months, what should we conclude about the efficacy of data transparency?

Other aspects of the report bear similar scrutiny. Under open data successes, we would ask: How have President Obama’s goals of transparency and accountability been affected by that expanded focus upon economic outcomes? What open data has been used for transparency and accountability for decades? By whom, and to what effect? What should government make sure to protect, empower and prioritize for these outcomes?

Definitions and costs

The report advances a formulation for open data — “data that is freely available for use, reuse and republication” — without referring to a pre-existing definition and does not mention machine-readability. There are several definitions of open government data available, from the 2007 Open Government Data principles to Sunlight’s principles to Open Knowledge International’s open data definition. It’s not clear why there is a new one nor why it does not cite these previous consensus-based standards, or at minimum acknowledge and cite them.

The report also fails to spend time on the cost of data collection, cleaning, storage or publication, although there is a mention of cost-savings. Governments should be open and transparent about the cost and benefits of opening data, as with other budget items. We hope that future investments in data infrastructure will be weighed against outcomes inside and outside of government, as was the case with the DATA Act, including value is generated by its release and structuring or improvements to regulatory efficiency and efficacy.

The use of volunteer efforts is emphasized in some of these recommendations. Government agencies should think through whether the desired outcomes around economic activity, social impact or accountability will be furthered by volunteer efforts or dedicated resources that guarantee quality and uptime. The use of prizes and challenges is relevant and important as levels, but we’re unsure that free labor should not be counted on nor prioritized.

Connecting FOIA to open data

We’re glad to see explicit connection of the administration’s proposed “release to one, release to all” policy for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the transition report. Under this, FOIA responses should be published on as open data, not in a separate database. FOIA and open data should no longer be separate issues and outcomes. Demand should drive releases.

In 2017, a new should enable the public to submit and track FOIA requests, the Office of Government Services to monitor performance and disputes, agencies to track cases, and the Department of Justice to collect and publish performance metrics.

This is also critical to consider in the context of the estimated $450,000,000 spent annually complying with FOIA. We expect that proactive, periodic disclosure of structured open data that’s subject to frequent FOIA requests will reduce FOIA costs and caseload at many agencies, freeing up staff to work on the more complicated public interest requests.

Given our work on enterprise data inventories and the demonstrated value of government agencies categorizing and listing their information assets – we hope the next administration will adopt and expand Project Open Data to deliver on all of these recommendations.

On privacy and security

We know that the next administration will inherit a daunting set of challenges around privacy and security. We would suggest that it is a mistake to put cybersecurity and open data in opposition. If that premise were adopted, many government agencies will have an obligation to shut these initiatives and platforms down. Open data releases must be be made in concert with privacy and security officers, keeping in mind the Mosaic Effect, the foreseeable harm standard, exemptions under FOIA, and the ways that releases of data can enhance public safety and security.

On the future

As the transition goes forward, it’s critical that everyone remember the United States has an admirable history of collecting and releasing data for the public good. Open data didn’t start with the Obama administration, although there’s no doubt that the president and his staff will leave a legacy of introducing the concept to the public. The Census Bureau has been releasing open data for years as geospatial data as well as many other categories – from the Security and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database (thank you, Carl Malamud!) to weather data.

As we reminded the White House Open Data Summit this fall, the need to conduct a census and therefore have a Census Bureau is written into our Constitution. In the United States, knowledge created of, for and by the people that has been funded by the people, should be made available to the public. It’s in our DNA: In the 19th century, the first U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture, Isaac Newton, established “collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information” as one of the prime objectives of the Department of Agriculture in 1862; the U.S. Naval Observatory collected navigational data from around the world and published it for mariners.

While our assessment of this report comes with the preceding caveats, we believe that the 27 recommendations that it contains are all likely to benefit the public and the operations of our government.

If these granular initiatives are adopted by the next administration, we expect generations to come will benefit from more open data releases and uses that will build upon the last decade of progress. We hope they will be.