Analyzing the state of open data in 2016

(Image credit: The State of the Union of Open Data, 2016)
(Image credit: The State of the Union of Open Data, 2016)

We are glad to see the Data Foundation and Grant Thornton published a new report on the state of open data in the United States. We believe this report will inform policymakers and the public about an important issue that all too often flies under the radar.

Consider this conclusion:

Just as the publicly-available data on our genetic code has fostered a rapid growth of knowledge in biology and medicine, and the communication standards which allow for the Internet have affected nearly every aspect of our lives, open government data has the potential to dramatically impact our civil society.

Sunlight was both consulted and interviewed in this report. We’re are pleased to see a focus on disclosing public information to the public online. There is important grounding in history about how access to information and an informed citizenry are fundamental to democracy in the report on this count:

The concept of open data has historical roots that stretch back to our nation’s founding. Indeed, the Constitution, as part of the framework of our system of government, established a Census to be conducted every ten years in order to base representation and governance on actual population numbers. This idea built on earlier, Enlightenment-Age philosophies about democracy, the role of government, and the ultimate power of the people. Based on such an understanding, data about the people and gathered on behalf of the people ultimately belongs to the people, and the government has a responsibility to act as a good steward for such data. The Founders demonstrated a high regard for the open flow of information through the free speech and open press protections of the First Amendment. Noting the critical importance of an informed citizenry to democracy, Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of Speech.”

All too often, open data is presented as a novel concept, shorn of historical context that connects publication of information, paid for with tax dollars, to centuries of practice. As we noted in our endorsement of the Center for Open Data Enterprise’s action plan for open data, sometimes research and history doesn’t cite the forefathers of the movement to open up government data online in more recent history. That’s one reason it’s great to see this report cite the 2007 meeting of the Sebastopol group which formed and published open government data principles and praise Carl Malamud’s pioneering work. Those ideas have since been adopted by the United States and refined by the Sunlight Foundation.

The report focuses on the Data Act as a turning point for open data, which makes sense given the involvement of many of the interviewees in connecting the law, implementing the policy and using the data. It is no accident that the report’s co-sponsor, Grant Thornton, is one of the world’s largest professional services network of accounting and consulting firms.

Standardizing and publishing federal spending data will provide economic benefits to the people who maintain and analyze federal spending. Sunlight has been and continues to be a proponent of the Data Act because of its immense potential to improve how government tracks its own spending and how structured disclosure will inform the public about how their taxes are spent.

After reviewing the report, however, we found an error in the first version of the document and an omission that weaken the strength of the authors’ assessment.

In the section on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the report stated that “data is only provided to their requestor and not to the public at large.” While FOIA reading rooms are not used in the way that Congress intended, it’s incorrect to state that FOIA records are not provided to the public. Similarly, FOIA lawsuits resulted in some of the largest amounts of data released online in human history by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. As the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 is implemented next year, we anticipate a more direct connection between FOIA requests and open data releases, and are advocating for the two to be explicitly tied together under a “release to one, release to all” policy.

We contacted the Data Foundation and spoke with its president, Hudson Hollister, who graciously requested that we suggest alternative language, which we have done.

More broadly, this report on the state of open data has no reflection upon the role of journalists, journalism or publishers as crucial intermediaries in democracies. “Journalists” and “journalism” don’t appear once in the document. Journalism and press freedom play a key role in open data and will continue to be crucial its future. The “state of open data” around the world also includes autocratic or authoritarian government’s adopting standardization and publication of machine readable data about any number of services or operations, from Moscow to Qatar. The promise of open government data to democracies rest upon the capacity of the public to make sense of it, share it and use it to hold institutions accountable.

While publishing open government data online enables the public to see it, the last decade has driven home how important “infomediaries” like Google and ProPublica are to helping people understand it and apply it to making decisions in elections, marketplaces for goods and services, health care or representative democracy. Data transparency, however, is not enough on its own for open government data to lead to accountability. Responsive institutions and investigative reporting that verifies the accuracy of data are critical to creating the feedback loops that maintain and strengthen democratic governance.

We see technology companies using open data evolving as important new infomediaries that help citizens to register to vote and find their local polling places or access information about health, education, energy, environment and every other sector of society. That role does not diminish the importance of investigative journalism, nor of defending against points of control in access or distribution that would limit publication of data, from copyright to APIs to license agreements or proprietary formats. If government shutdowns can take websites and data offline, we have a problem.

When we raised this concern with Hollister in a phone call, he acknowledged the omission and sent us a statement.

You are absolutely correct to point out that the most enthusiastic users, and the earliest adopters, of open data are the journalists who use it to illuminate what governments are up to. “Journalists pushed for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act fifty years ago and journalists still defend it today. The Data Foundation believes open data strengthens democracy, improves internal management, automates compliance, and creates economic opportunity. We would never have got to this point if journalists hadn’t developed the public accountability potential of open data first. Ultimately, we hope open data will take hold so completely within government that internal decision-makers and external watchdogs will be relying on the very same data sets. Our interviewees for The State of the Union of Open Data, 2016 told us this is beginning to happen – but we know it will require continued vigorous data journalism.

We agree with Hollister and remain grateful for his vigorous advocacy in Washington, affirmation of the public’s right to know how our taxes are being spent and ongoing oversight of the implementation of the DATA Act.

We welcome the constructive criticism of the state open data voiced by experts in the report, and with respect to the challenges that remain ahead, like data creation, collection, storage, publication and use. As Waldo Jaquith, Sunlight’s former senior adviser and founder of the U.S. Open Data Institute, told the researchers, “Current open data practices are appallingly crude” in many contexts. Jaquith’s clarity and call to action about the need for standards, schemas and infrastructure to underpin open data call attention to a need that governments at every level should address.

We hope that all of these voices helps to push those entrusted with leading open data initiatives in directions that inform and empower people around the world.