On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the OPEN Government Data Act (H.R. 4174). This law is a major milestone for open data, as it will require the federal government to make government data available to the public in a non-proprietary and machine-readable format by default. In addition, it requires federal agencies to designate chief data officers and establishes a Chief Data Officer Council to promote best practices for data management across the federal government. Now that the law has been enacted, what should Congress and the administration do next to ensure the benefits of open data are fully realized?
On February 7, 2019, the Center for Data Innovation, BSA | The Software Alliance, the Internet Association, SPARC, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Data Coalition, and the American Library Association hosted a panel discussion about the future of open data in the United States, including how to address challenges related to implementing the OPEN Government Data Act and opportunities to leverage open data for economic and social benefits.
Representative Derek Kilmer, the bill’s original sponsor, set up the discussion by explaining why better access to data will benefit Americans. Making government data more accessible will create “more opportunity for more people in more places,” by enabling people to invest in new technologies, start new businesses, and create new jobs—whether they live in an urban or rural area. Kilmer described how the law can help citizens hold government more accountable. For example, with better data access, the public can monitor wait times and access to care at Veterans Affairs clinics, ensuring that the nation’s veterans are being treated properly. In addition, the OPEN Government Data Act can empower the government to use empirical evidence when making policies, as well as arming press and transparency groups with facts. It also can provide opportunities to better protect taxpayers’ interests through eliminating expensive and ineffective programs. Ultimately, he believes that this bill will open the door to new innovations.
Following Representative Kilmer’s remarks, the panel, consisting of open data experts that helped draft and pass the OPEN Government Data Act, discussed the implications of the law and issues that policymakers should prioritize as open data policy evolves.
Christian Hoehner, senior director of policy at the Data Coalition, explained that while the bill’s primary impact was the codification of President Obama’s 2013 executive order on open data, it expanded on existing policy in several important ways. For example, the law codifies many key definitions related to open data that had not yet been statutorily defined, providing clarification and consistency for future open data policies.
hristian Troncoso, policy director at BSA | The Software Alliance, explained how he believed that the most important new provision of the law is the requirement that every agency appoint a chief data officer to be responsible for leading the implementation of open data policy. This include the related provision establishing the Chief Data Officer Council, which will enable the chief data officers to create harmonized approaches for data governance processes.
Alla Seiffert, director of cloud policy and counsel at the Internet Association noted how a legal mandate for open data will be a “boon to American business.” Troncoso, whose organization represents mostly enterprise software companies, agreed that this will benefit the business community—particularly companies involved in machine learning. He also believes that companies will also be able to partner with the government and improve its uses of data, and subsequently, its ability to provide public services.
Beyond the implications for the private sector, Nick Shockey, director of programs and engagement at SPARC, described how the law will benefit the research and academic communities. In particular, he thinks the inclusion of definitions will make the transition to more open data smoother, making data more accessible more quickly. Nick Hart, director of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agreed, noting that if more organizations can use data, they can evaluate the quality and limitations of it, helping the data improve over time.
Panelists emphasizes the importance of getting implementation right now that the bill has become law. For example, Seiffert stress the need for civil society groups to provide education and resources to help the government make the transition.
Panelists also identified potential challenges in open data that policymakers should address. For example, explaining that federal shutdowns can cause barriers to data access, Troncoso and Hoehner believe it essential that data systems remain operational during future shutdowns to ensure businesses that rely on open data can operate effectively. Hoehner, in particular, thinks that businesses should be able to download data in bulk that they can freely use when they anticipate another shutdown; Shockey supported this, specifically emphasizing the need for nonproprietary data so that organizations can build off of data.
Though the panelists agreed there is still work to be done to build on the OPEN Government Data Act, the passage of the bill was nonetheless a major win for the open data community and the public as a whole. As Representative Kilmer cautioned in his remarks, “Passing the OPEN Government Data Act was a big step, but it wasn’t the last step.”
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