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Got Government Data? Not Anymore!
by
Posted On April 11, 2011


Not 2 years ago--- June 4, 2009, to be precise--- Laura Gordon-Murnane wrote an Information Today NewsBreak describing an experiment in making government datasets available to the public, including scientists and researchers, at a new website, Data.gov. Her article, “Opening the Doors to Government Data,” begins as follows:

Executive agencies release a lot of data, but most of it is hard to find and hard to use because it is published using proprietary formats of “limited utility.” Data.gov offers a solution to this problem-the government has created a “citizen-friendly” one-stop shop “that provides access to Federal datasets.” 

By creating a searchable and accessible data catalog, the government anticipates that innovation and entrepreneurship will flourish by allowing citizens to create “new web applications that help individuals, communities, and businesses access, sort, visualize, and understand public data in new ways.” Furthermore, the government expects and hopes that data transparency will unleash “economic, scientific and educational innovation, as well as civic engagement by making it easier to build applications, conduct analysis, and perform research” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/open/innovations/Data).

Last week we learned that this noble project—emblematic of the 21st century approach to information, technology, and society—has become one of the many victims of federal government belt tightening. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has responded to Congressional calls for budget restraint with plans to shutter the Administration’s transparency programs 2 years after their start.

Data.gov is not the only transparency in government project to be closed down; other efforts slated for shut down due to the budgetary crisis include the following:

  • Apps.gov
  • Fedspace, a secure intranet and collaboration workspace for Federal employees and contractors
  • Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which provides standards for cloud computing
  • IT Dashboard that analyzes and evaluates Federal information technology investments (http://it.usaspending.gov/)
  • USASpending.gov.

How the Administration will be able to eliminate USASpending.gov is beyond me since it is required by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Also, if Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra is correct, “[T]he IT Dashboard has helped save the government $3 billion on IT projects” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/31/open-sourcing-it-dashboard-techstat-process). So, it’s the forward-thinking, successful initiatives that go by the wayside while duplicative programs and real estate remain on the books.

The Open Data Movement

A great deal of research is conducted each year using taxpayer dollars. While we often get access to final reports, researchers have been agitating for access to the underlying data—in whatever form—so that they can review it and build upon it. More recently, technology has enabled individuals to do more with government data, at all levels (local, state, and national), than was ever imagined—from mashups of road workers filling potholes in your neighborhood and detours to avoid traffic jams to nation-wide environmental data sets. Not-for-profit organizations have embraced open data wholeheartedly, as exemplified by the biodiversity data made available by the Public Library of Science.

Governments continue to open their data vaults, as evidenced in the U.K.’s Opening Up Government site and Hong Kong’s Open Data Portal, along with commercial entities, such as MS Windows Azure Marketplace. Do we really want to revert to requests for access to data sets that take months to clear, delaying additional research that could build and expand on research already conducted?

Looking For a Silver Lining

The FY2011 spending bill approved by the House and under consideration in the Senate cuts the Electronic Spending Fund, from $34 million to just $2 million, for the remainder of this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30, 2011). It’s not a “done deal,” as they say, so there is still hope that some of the funding will be reinstated. Also, we’re not talking about insurmountable sums. As OpenCongress’s Donny Shaw put it, the annual cost is “just one-third of one day of missile attacks in Libya.” This could be an opportunity for an enterprising commercial entity to create one of those public-private partnerships we hear so much about.

While Data.gov may cease to exist, agencies should be encouraged to continue to make data available through their own sites. Yes, these datasets may be more difficult to find and use, but individual agency e-gov initiatives could carry us through the budgetary crisis.

What You Can Do to Express Your Concerns

The FY 2012 budget has not been reviewed by Congress—it’s still working on a compromise for FY2011, 6 months into the fiscal year—so it’s not certain that these innovative project websites will be taken down. The Sunlight Foundation remains “committed to improving access to government information by making it available online” and has launched a website with four ways you can express your concerns about this anti e-government initiative:

1.   Sign their Letter to Congressional leaders

2.   Call your representative—You can find your representative at http://www.congress.org/congressorg/directory/congdir.tt?action=myreps_form

3.   Write a letter to the editor of your local paper

4.   Spread the word—blog, twitter, Facebook—and share the link so that the Sunlight Foundation can help promote it (http://sunlightfoundation.com/savethedata/).

According to Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for Sunlight Foundation, “the future of e-gov initiatives is “anyone’s guess.” (You can hear more of Daniel Schuman’s interview on Federal News Radio at http://media.bonnint.net/wtop/21/2130/213033.mp3.)

Update at Presstime, April 10, 2011

Section 363 of the latest continuing resolution bill (H.R. 1363) provides $17 million for the GSA for the Electronic Government Fund operation, half of what was in the original budget request, but $15 million more than was in the compromise proposed last month. We’ll have to wait and see what transpires when the final FY2011 budget deal is announced; then we can deal with FY2012. Ironically, a posting to the White House Blog dated April 7 notes that last week President Obama met with leaders of the “open government community” at which he was presented with “with an award for his leadership in making government more transparent.”


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser
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