March is a busy month for those who are committed to open government. March 4 was Open Data Day, a global effort to bring together individuals interested in increasing access to information online. Sunshine Week (@SunshineWeek; #SunshineWeek), held March 12–18, is a nationwide education initiative to promote open government. Government agencies, news organizations, universities, and libraries celebrated with public events designed to raise awareness about the importance of open and transparent government as an essential element for a democratic society. March 16, the birthday of James Madison (who is known as the father of the Constitution), was Freedom of Information Day, which is dedicated to the concept that everyone has the right to access information from federal agency records, with only a few exemptions.
Journalists look to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as their tool of last resort when ferreting out information from government agencies for use in their publications. The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supported the work of journalists during Sunshine Week by creating a free package of stories, columns, and cartoons.
Open Data Day Celebrations
There were four themes for Open Data Day events around the world this year: open research data, tracking public money flows, open data for environment, and open data for human rights. Open Knowledge International designed a website that includes links to data repositories and resources for tracking and understanding U.S. data sharing policies, clinical trials, and text and data mining. Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX) released an infographic highlighting eight ways to leverage open data.
Social media, municipalities, and advocacy groups around the world created events and resources to engage citizenry in various efforts to learn about open data and actively improve access to data. The following are some examples:
- A Google Group helped sponsors publicize events.
- Open Data Day city hackathons were displayed on a wiki.
- New York commemorated the 5-year anniversary of the city’s Open Data Law with a weeklong celebration.
- Italy also had a weeklong celebration.
- Open Knowledge International provided a profile of events receiving International Open Data Day mini-grants.
- Storify offered tweets from international events.
Public expectations are that government information—paid for with tax dollars—should be freely accessible online. The Guardian identifies “five countries with promising open data initiatives set to make big impacts in 2017”: Argentina, Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria.
According to a March 2017 Knight Foundation report, “Nearly 9 out of 10 [experts] predicted that access to government will worsen because of the new presidential administration.” Initial days of the administration gave rise to concerns, as data was removed from federal websites without explanation as to how temporary this might be. OpenTheGovernment.org has begun to track information being removed, and DataRefuge is bringing together archivists and hackers to harvest data from government websites. “Since January, 158 complete data sets have been downloaded, labeled, and re-uploaded to DataRefuge.org, a growing repository of scraped government science,” according to Quartz.
Three localities are involved with open data initiatives:
- Boston launched its Analyze Boston open data hub in beta.
- Through the OpenDataVote project, Philadelphia’s citizens are encouraged to vote on the datasets that are not currently available to the public but might be useful.
- Reclaim New York issued the Online Transparency Index, which asks state citizens to evaluate government accessibility and transparency for nearly 2,300 government entities.
Celebrating Sunshine Week at NARA
At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden opened their event by stressing the importance of their cooperative programming. NARA and the Library of Congress, along with the Smithsonian Institute, connect people to information and primary documents, making access to (and preserving) the nation’s treasures possible.
Thomas Susman, director of governmental affairs for the American Bar Association (ABA), moderated the first panel of the afternoon, FOIA After 50. He said that the U.S. FOIA law stands as an inspiration to other nations as a model for developing enforceable rights to government information, even as some have improved on our system.
Since passing FOIA in 1966, Congress has continued to strengthen “the public’s right of access and the institutions and processes that give rise to the public’s ability to get information from government,” according to Susman. More than 700,000 FOIA requests were filed in FY2015; fewer than 8% were denied in full. For a look at who makes these requests, FOIA Mapper analyzed 229,000 FOIA requests to 85 government agencies, summarized in a graphic.
The president has rolled back dozens of mandates and executive orders from the previous administration. According to Susman, two he has let stand so far are the 2009 memorandum calling for greater transparency and openness in government and an executive order lowering barriers to public access of presidential records.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader believes that knowing how to file a FOIA request is a basic skill of citizenship and should be part of the high school curriculum. Nader weighed in on three major barriers to FOIA requests: unnecessary fees that intimidate requesters, deterring FOIA filings; the increasing use of FOIA exemptions by federal agencies; and the inability of the government to harness technology to process the requests.
National Security Archive director Tom Blanton highlighted the findings of his organization’s annual FOIA audit: Only 38 out of 99 agencies made changes to their FOIA regulations as required by the FOIA Improvement Act. Noting that the U.S. is now ranked 57 out of 111 nations with some form of a statutory right of access to government information, Blanton pointed out that its ordinary, routine openness is better than that of many of those nations ranked ahead of it. According to Blanton, there are two problems with current law: The Office of Government Information Service (OGIS) lacks the power to overrule a federal agency stonewalling a requester, and FOIA lacks a public interest or human rights override option.
The final panel of the day, Government at Your Fingertips, was moderated by Miriam Nisbet, the first director of OGIS. Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, began by reminding the audience that the best ways for the public to engage with their representatives in Congress are in person or via telephone, which are methods from the 1950s. He said the legislative branch needs 21st-century technology to better facilitate this contact. Congressional offices are experiencing increased constituent correspondence while member office budgets endure cuts.
The House of Representatives spent more than $200 million last year on technology, so it’s not the amount spent, but the technology itself that is woefully inadequate. The OpenGov Foundation’s solution is a Congressional Digital Service, similar to the executive branch’s U.S. Digital Service, to diagnose the problems. No one knows the appropriate response time to a constituent correspondence made via social media or the telephone. Kraft believes that we’ll see a Congressional Digital Service in this Congress and recommends that it sit outside partisan politics—for example, in the Library of Congress.
Adam Marshall, Knight Foundation Litigation Attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, introduced his agency’s FOIA wiki, which allows everyone to contribute what they know about FOIA, with introductory pages describing the law and how it works, detailed topic-specific legal information, and a discussion board where people can ask questions and receive answers from the community. The wiki partners with other groups to pull in relevant FOIA information. For example, each agency and sub-agency page includes basic FOIA contact information for that (sub-)agency, how records are organized in that (sub-)agency, FOIA statistics, and cases involving the (sub-)agency from FOIAproject.org.