The state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded

What’s next for open data in the United States? That was the open question posed at the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) last week, where a panel of industry analysts and experts gathered to discuss the historic open government data act that President Trump signed into law in January 2019.

You can read straight reporting of the discussion about what comes after legally mandated open data at Federal Times, from the crucial role of the chief data officers that were mandated by the law in its implementation noted by Fedscoop to the “fine line” that agencies will have to walk in making government information open to the public while protecting personal privacy and security.

You can also just watch the video below, which includes a speech at the outset by one of the laws’ co-sponsors and champions in Congress, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), whose described the bipartisan coalition that led to the passage of the bill and extolled the benefits of opening up government information to the public.

The picture that the discussion painted of the near future was quite rosy, similar to the recent report on the “state of open data” from the Data Foundation, a nonpartisan group that similarly supported by technology companies and consultants, which declared the state of our data union “strong,” with no opposition.

To be blunt, that’s not at all what I see in the United States, or globally.

As I wrote after the 5th International Open Data Conference, “political transitions in Western democracies and ongoing erosions in liberal democracy amidst the rise of right-wing populism have put fragile gains in jeopardy.”

Over the past decade, “much more of the world has seen how it is possible to publish open data without embracing transparency, accountability, and ethics in the right administration of government or the politics around it.”

While this White House may support open government data relevant to economic data, administration officials have been downright hostile to disclosures that make the White House more transparent, hold companies accountable for their products or services, or inform the public about how power is wielded or political ads are funded.

If you watch the video above or tweets below, you’ll see I raised these issues at CDI as well online during the event.

Unfortunately, both the panel and the foundation’s report contained notable voids about the role of watchdogs and the press in ensuring that open data disclosures lead to more social impact and better democratic outcomes, not just economic activity.

This wasn’t the first time, either, as I highlighted in 2016:

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 the enactment of the Open Government Data Act is a critical step that not only codified President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order but harmonized with the Freedom of Information Act, it should be harder to look at the United States of America in 2019 and declare that all is well when it comes to open government data today.

While open government endures beyond the Open Government Partnership, the shadowed record on good government and “information darkness” of the Trump administration are crucial context that shouldn’t be omitted from any public discussion of implementing this law.

The public should know that the biggest risks to open data remain political in 2019.

When open data reveal incompetence, embarrassment, fraud, waste or outright abuses of power for private benefit — also known as corruption – then you should expect those people in power in the government or those who influence government will seek to remove access or the data itself.  (That reality is why I co-founded Sunlight’s Web Integrity Project after watchdogging government data removals from the Internet in 2017.)

That’s why open data initiatives and programs complement freedom of information laws, but they cannot replace them, particularly with respect to the capacity of journalists and watchdogs to sue for public records under sunshine statutes.

Although Data.gov and chief data officers now enjoy a legal mandate to exist, power over the disclosures that they enable or host are rests int the hands of appointees and technical staff who may choose to obfuscate or limit access to public websites.

Even with this new law, open government depends on who’s in charge, which means that aggressive oversight from its sponsors and the nonprofit watchdogs dedicated to defending, upholding and advancing open government will remain critical in the year ahead.

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