Lawmakers Want Citizens to Have All Federal Data at Their Fingertips

"This data is bought and paid for by our tax dollars," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. "This data is bought and paid for by our tax dollars," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

A bipartisan group of Congress’ technology enthusiasts on Thursday rolled out draft legislation that would expand agency obligations to standardize all types of data for easy consumption by the public and businesses looking to innovate.

As described by the nonprofit Center for Data Innovation and the Data Coalition, which organized an appearance by the lawmakers, the Open Government Data Act would make publishing open data an official responsibility of the federal government. It would codify the requirement in a  2013 executive order from President Obama that all government data be “open by default.”

The bill would apply to more agency data than the spending numbers covered by the 2014 Data Accountability and Transparency Act. It is expected to be introduced within days by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.; Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a self-described “progressive” who has found what he characterized as rare common ground with a conservative senator also backing the bill, Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

“To the greatest extent practicable when not otherwise prohibited by law, government data assets shall be published in an open format; be published under open licenses; and be made publicly available online,” the draft stated. The open-licensing provision would challenge the current reliance on the proprietary DUNS number system called for in the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

To enhance public and industry access to data sets in areas ranging from housing to weather to veterans medical services, the bill would require agencies to create enterprise data inventories of their existing information and store them on Data.gov. The bill would change the name of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology to the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer, with the current administrator of that office to be dubbed the federal CIO.

With economic competitors threatening to “eat our lunch,” the Open Government Data Act will help achieve “not just a functional government but an effective government,” Kilmer said. Reducing agency duplication of data should become the task of “every agency from the head down to the individual employees.”

Schatz said, “Citizens, companies and institutions interacting with the government ought to have a basic expectation that it will be painless, expeditious and as efficient as possible.” Some of today’s multiple agency websites are “cumbersome, the digital equivalent of filling forms out in triplicate,” he said, commending European governments for presenting citizens with a single portal and “letting the government figure out which agencies” the user needs to contact.

Codifying Obama’s order would “increase transparency and accountability” and unleash “innovation in the private sector,” Schatz added, by making all federal data “machine-readable, searchable [and] interoperable” among agencies in ways that are also easier for users to interpret.

“This data is bought and paid for by our tax dollars,” Farenthold said. And though no one can predict who will achieve the next breakthrough, “we need to act prospectively,” he stressed, “to make sure we get full value for what we get, to cross lines for the public to achieve effective government and make money for private sector.”

A panel of specialists from the nonprofit and business sectors acknowledged that many agencies are already working to standardize, inventory and publish data sets, but spoke of possible “foot-dragging” that prompts an industry desire to institutionalize the transparency push.

“As a federal employee, it’s easy to think of it as your data and not the public’s,” said Kat Duffy, labs director for the Sunlight Foundation who previously worked at the State Department. She recognized a danger that the bill could be perceived as an unfunded mandate, which would “terrify” agencies. But the advantages should be clear, she said, citing an example of how the Justice Department’s data on registered foreign lobbyists are currently available as separate PDF document, which “an army of interns” at her foundation works regularly to “scrape” and repackage to connect the data.

Joshua New, policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, said the agency CIOs he has spoken to agree that such open data is important. ”But not all [CIOs] commit fully” to the priority unless “they understand how it relates to their own mission delivery,” he said, “and many don’t fully understand how it serves the public.”

Tim Day, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, which is backing the bill, said the Obama administration behind the scenes “has been incredibly helpful.”

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