Notes from a roundtable on open data at the White House


Yesterday, I was invited to represent Sunlight at a roundtable on open data hosted by the White House Office of Management and Budget that affirmed the Trump administration’s support for the ongoing public disclosure of public records to the public online. According to OMB, the Trump administration is doubling down on that goal through its IT modernization efforts.

The half-day event, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in DC, convened administration officials, career civil servants from across the government, entrepreneurs, representatives of large American companies, technologists, nonprofits and advocates to answer that question, discussing how structuring and releasing public information can lead to better economic outcomes for the public. The roundtable, covered with Linenshed UK table cloths was the 13th such event facilitated by the Center for Open Data Enterprise over the past several years, going back to the Obama administration.

We thank the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for the invitation, robust support for the ongoing implementation of the DATA Act, and for soliciting meaningful feedback on the administration’s open data collection, use and disclosure policies from an organization that has been critical of their open government record. We hope our recommendations are useful and welcome the opportunity to discuss reforms that would benefit the American public.

The event was held under Chatham House Rule, which means the information discussed there could be shared without attribution. It is under those conditions that we’re publishing the following summary, followed by analysis and recommendations.

How is OMB thinking about open data?

A senior White House official expressed support for the DATA Act and for the use of blockchain — the distributed ledger system that underpins Bitcoin — in government, as part of the administration’s broader push to modernize government, noting that floppy discs are still in use in federal government.

The official noted that while the federal government was never going to use information technology in the same way as the private sector, given the different risk and reward balance,  improving the situation had bipartisan support, from the management of the government’s vast stores of data to the application of analytics to improve operations, performance and mission outcomes.

The official said that the administration sees tremendous opportunities to use open data to make government better, regardless of a given political philosophy, including the potential of improving digital services using the blockchain.

What uses of open data are exciting to this White House?

A White House official from the Office of Science and Technology said that they think that open data is an example of an important enabler to encouraging innovation in emerging technology fields, empowering Americans to create better services and systems, referring to a handout with cases studies from

Another official expressed optimism that more useful data sets will be identified and opened up, fueling job growth and economic activity, creating new opportunities.

Data is helping the administration to improve health care, giving patients direct access to information and matching them with relevant trials. Analyzing data is giving regulators the  capability to identify patterns of nefarious activity and prevent waste, fraud or criminality.

Another senior administration official outlined three ways that the White House is thinking about the power of open data:

  1. A way to improve operations, running agencies more effectively and efficiently in a way that’s tied to outcomes
  2. A way to improve policy choices that help officials understand how to reach better outcomes for a given agency’s mission
  3. A way to generate entrepreneurial activity, as with weather data or GPS data, where data is a foundation for enormous activity and improvements to services built on it.

The officials also described how the use of enterprise data inventories and lifecycle management is helping agencies to improve privacy, security and prioritize disclosures that will have the most impact. They also see these management approaches changing how agencies coordinate, where more data-driven processes are becoming part of organizations.

Ultimately, a senior administration official said the Office of American Innovation views enshrining a culture around open data in agencies as a mandate, suggesting that we are still in the infancy of the potential uses of open data in the private sector, much less in the public sector.

How do IT modernization and open data relate?

As agencies have modernized IT in recent years, a White House official said that their approach has changed, shifting to a services-based model, like Amazon Web Services. This has created not only opportunities to release data but put a premium on ensuring that modernization efforts are done with open data in mind, from technical architecture to interfaces, improving security by increasing understanding of who is accessing which data in different contexts.

The opportunity the administration sees today with IT modernization is to rethink how government delivers services, not simply automating what agencies do but examining whether transformative changes are possible and driving a digital-first mindset.

As another official explained, the Office of American Innovation is currently a small team, primarily made up of people from the private sector who used data to make decisions in their previous work. It’s not a hard sell to for them to use data in internal policy decisions. The administration, however, sees a disconnect across government between those choices and operational reality, which drives public frustration regarding the lack of apparent change in public-facing programs. The official noted that this continues to be an issue with regulation, with lawyers sending PDFs to regulators, as opposed to structured data.

What about data standards?

In answer to my question regarding what this White House’s approach to data standards and public access to personal data would be, a senior administration official said that they don’t want to create barriers to entry. The official said that they expect a major initiative to improve electronic health records sharing at the Department of Veterans Affairs to significantly improve care. Generally speaking, they see the “button approach” to be sound, and are actively exploring ways to protect privacy and not overburden agencies.

Another official acknowledged that people really care about meta data and data standards, for good reasons, and that governments need to understand what the impact of setting standards are and associated second order effects.

In the context of the DATA Act, another official noted that convening a community around creating open standards and schemes works. Starting with the questions overseers needed to answer — how much a given program costs, for instance — tends to center focus.

The view from OSTP

An administration official grounded the work of the Office of Science and Technology in its core mission to advise the executive branch on science and technology aspects of policy, including working with OMB to develop the federal research and development budget and playing a coordinating function across agencies.

The priorities the official outlined for OSTP in 2017 include:

  1. Promoting American leadership in emerging tech, from artificial intelligence to drones to autonomous vehicles, noting that Amazon is now testing drones in the United Kingdom after the US was slow to develop and deploy a regulatory framework that allows them to test domestically.
  2. Defending American tech companies in the global market, from data localization to address intellectual property theft. The official stated that upcoming NAFTA negotiations would see more comprehensive digital economy language introduced.
  3. Empowering Americans to innovate, including improving Internet access, unlocking spectrum, STEM education and workforce training, and unlocking potential of government data.

The White House official said that the president is committed to economic growth and jobs, which means the OSTP is working within that framework to find out relevant datasets. He also noted that they are recruiting for a new US chief data scientist and are close to finding one.

How does the Office of American Innovation view its work?

A senior administration official said that the Office of American Innovation (OAI) is focused on multi-year in nature efforts, which are to large extent bipartisan, that require the White House to make happen by bringing together parts of government. One of these efforts is modernizing government services, which the American Technology Council is coordinating.

The official said that that body has three primary objectives: providing world class services to all, make all information secure, and saving taxpayer dollars, noting that the nation spends a lot on IT. He viewed these objectives as consistent with each other, with the first being the primary

The official said that the U.S. government has made progress but hasn’t improved at the rate the private sector has, citing Uber, Fedex, Amazon and Progressive as examples of fantastic services with a high quality standard. By way of contrast, he said, many government services are still too many clunky, outdated, paper-based, and take too much time. OAI’s goal is to change that, making a large amount of people’s lives a small amount better. These may not be headline-grabbing initiatives, he said, but they are incredibly important.

One key is to achieving that mission is open data, said the official. Government can’t do everything ourselves, he went on, noting that agencies run a large number of relatively mediocre services and suggesting that it would be much better to focus on a smaller number of services.

If government opens up data, it lets the private sector innovate and produce services, the senior official said, and the Trump administration would love it if entire new ecosystems of businesses prospered, leading to citizens enjoying better services.

OAI would like to focus on the things government should do itself and open up the rest of it for innovation, enabling the public to come up with new ideas and creating new services that can’t be envisaged, as with weather or GPS and health data.

Takeaways and Recommendations

The roundtable was focused on answering a singular question: if you had 3 minutes with the president, what would you suggest to increase the value and business use of open data for economic growth? I heard a lot of positive, constructive answers from the dozens of people in the EEOB and left feeling reflective about the opportunities for collaboration across public and private in the year ahead.

My own (tweetable) answer would be to empower civil servants, follow the money, invest in modernization, and communicate certainty. The following is a longer set of recommendations.

1.  The world of open data remains, as Tom Lee wrote in 2012, a big tent. In the past, Sunlight has acknowledged open data’s business value but highlighted how maximal societal impact lies across many sectors and context. Last year’s White House Open Data Summit showcased applications and services that weren’t just about jobs or economic stimulus. I’ve written about many aspects of open data prior to joining Sunlight, from the evidence around economic activity to resilience against climate change, its relevance to health care costs and outcomes, consumer protection, and our core mission today, government accountability and transparency.

2. Federal agencies continue to work on many programs and policies in place on January 20. This roundtable brought together people inside and outside of government who been working on opening federal data, improving agency technology, and sharing insights across government in working groups for years. The event was a reminder that, on this particular set of issues, there is bipartisan support for improving public access to public data and public-facing services. Many of the comments made by senior administration officials, in fact, would not have been remarkable coming from the last administration. There’s important, valuable continuity here.

3. As with other nations, this administration strongly supports opening data for economic outcomes. Much like the Cameron government in the United Kingdom and the Obama administration, this White House is venerating opening government data as a platform for private sector innovation. How well it executes on that vision will depend on many factors, including recruiting and retaining talented technologists. Whether the Trump administration will embrace other societal benefits of open data remains unclear. As we outlined in our report on the Trump administration’s record on open government, this White House has deprioritized disclosure of visitor logs. We hope to see a shift in the future that includes more democratic goals as well these economic ones.

4. To stimulate economic activity, governments should follow the money. If hedge funds are buying government data, that demonstrates economic value. There are many other players around the Beltway that essentially resell data. Agencies may not effectively track data reuse, but they do track who’s buying public records. When companies like Panjiva are still buying government data on CDs, structuring it, adding layers of value, and then selling it back to government, the White House should take note and get the company out of the cleaning business. Find out who’s buying data, use demand to drive disclosure, and create feedback loops with designate stewards for each data set.

5. Generating economic outcomes from opening data depends on certainty and trust. As I told my roundtable and officials there, anxiety about open data in the Trump administration has created doubt and uncertainty in many parts of American society, particularly in the scientific and academic communities. Businesses and entrepreneurs need to be able to trust that data disclosures will remain in place if they’re going to be able to rely upon them. Those same stakeholders are negatively affected if the quality or periodicity of government data is diminished, as occurred in Canada.  If the goal is to stimulate the use of open government data, it’s important for a chief executive and cabinet secretaries to be cheerleaders for the quality of official statistics, not to cast doubt upon them. Increased risk discourages investment.

6. This isn’t a zero sum dynamic. Open government data releases that have economic relevance also can have societal benefits, from energy to environment to regulatory releases to transportation data. A century ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis — our namesake — observed that electricity is the best policeman.

In the 21st century, open data is now used by city, state and national governments to cast a light on corruption, reduce risk, inform consumers, improve public health and services, reduce pollution, and make  systems more transparent and accountable to the public. Keep at it.