One Good Idea

Government Data Wants To Be Free

“I have a theory that 20 percent of federal data holds 80 percent of the public value.”

This illustration can only be used with the Kaveh Waddell piece that originally ran in the 2/28/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
Feb. 27, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spends a lot of time and en­ergy col­lect­ing data. Hun­dreds of agen­cies sit on vast sup­plies of in­form­a­tion com­piled from sources such as tax re­turns, geo­lo­gic sur­veys, reg­u­lat­ory fil­ings, stu­dent-loan state­ments, and Medi­care re­cords.

(Koren Shadmi)That in­form­a­tion can be dif­fi­cult to find — but not ne­ces­sar­ily be­cause it’s hid­den be­hind lock and key. Some of the in­form­a­tion the gov­ern­ment com­piles and or­gan­izes is pub­licly avail­able as search­able data on sites like and USAspend­ The prob­lem is that much of what re­mains has been re­leased as lengthy doc­u­ments that aren’t read­ily search­able (think scanned pa­per) in­stead of as ma­chine-read­able data­sets (think Ex­cel spread­sheets).

The po­ten­tial be­ne­fits of clean­ing up ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment data, and re­leas­ing more data in ma­chine-read­able format, are vast. One be­ne­fi­ciary, of course, would be the busi­ness world — and it’s there­fore no sur­prise that busi­nesses are lob­by­ing for the change. For one thing, if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment ac­cep­ted doc­u­ments like reg­u­lat­ory fil­ings as data rather than forms, firms that spend thou­sands a year on com­pli­ance could in­stead use auto­mated pro­cesses to sub­mit re­quired in­form­a­tion. Ima­gine a “Tur­bo­Tax for everything,” says Hud­son Hol­lister, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Data Trans­par­ency Co­ali­tion, a trade as­so­ci­ation that lob­bies on be­half of tech firms. Moreover, if con­sult­ing firms had bet­ter ac­cess to gov­ern­ment data, he ar­gues, they could in turn help the gov­ern­ment man­age it­self bet­ter.

But there are also more-ideal­ist­ic reas­ons for the gov­ern­ment to make data easi­er to find and di­gest. For non­profit groups like the Sun­light Found­a­tion and the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics, open data is in­dis­pens­able to the mis­sion of keep­ing gov­ern­ment ac­count­able. Or con­sider a non­profit called Col­lege Aba­cus, which al­lows stu­dents and fam­il­ies to com­pare the “net cost” of at­tend­ing dif­fer­ent col­leges us­ing in­form­a­tion that schools are re­quired to re­port to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

The Cen­ter for Open Data En­ter­prise, a non­profit that launched last week, is push­ing open data for both busi­ness and pub­lic-in­terest pur­poses. The aim is to play match­maker between fed­er­al agen­cies and po­ten­tial users of open-gov­ern­ment data. “The way open data has been treated in the U.S. and around the world is a sup­ply-side mod­el: Gov­ern­ments put data out there and hope it’s use­ful,” says Joel Gur­in, the group’s founder. (The or­gan­iz­a­tion’s pro­jects are fun­ded by Amazon and Price­wa­ter­house­Coopers. Gur­in, who was formerly at New York Uni­versity, says he’s look­ing in­to get­ting found­a­tion fund­ing as his or­gan­iz­a­tion grows.) By bring­ing busi­nesses and non­profits to the data sup­pli­ers, Gur­in hopes to make it easi­er for agen­cies to fo­cus on clean­ing up and re­struc­tur­ing the in­form­a­tion that mat­ters most. “I have a the­ory that 20 per­cent of fed­er­al data holds 80 per­cent of the pub­lic value,” he says. “A lot of what we’re try­ing to do is to fig­ure out how to help agen­cies find that 20 per­cent.”

Pres­id­ent Obama and Con­gress have already made moves to­ward pry­ing open the gov­ern­ment’s treas­ure trove of data. Obama signed the Di­git­al Ac­count­ab­il­ity and Trans­par­ency Act last May, after the House and Sen­ate both passed it un­an­im­ously. The meas­ure re­quires the gov­ern­ment to make its spend­ing in­form­a­tion ac­cess­ible and search­able on­line. And in 2013, Obama signed an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that would make “open and ma­chine-read­able the new de­fault for gov­ern­ment in­form­a­tion.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­s­i­tion is “ter­rif­ic in prin­ciple,” says Gur­in, “but in prac­tice, this is not easy for agen­cies to do.” The many-headed fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy runs on lay­ers of com­puter sys­tems and data policies that have ac­cu­mu­lated throughout the years, and coax­ing agen­cies in­to the 21st cen­tury is a tough task. Gur­in also wor­ries that open-data policies, which can be costly, may look like low-hanging fruit for law­makers wield­ing the fisc­al ma­chete. “The biggest threat is wheth­er budgets “for data col­lec­tion are go­ing to be cut,” he says.

Still, the mo­mentum ap­pears to be on the side of open-data ad­voc­ates. Last week, the White House hired the first ever U.S. chief data sci­ent­ist, DJ Pat­il. In an in­tro­duct­ory let­ter he pub­lished, Pat­il made clear that he would be push­ing for­ward the open-data agenda.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied the Cen­ter for Open Data En­ter­prise.

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