Contractors Back Open Data Bill -- In Theory

Inconsistent agency protections of intellectual property are raising some concerns.

A coming bipartisan bill to expand agency obligations to standardize all types of data for public release is being backed by many in the contracting industry, though with some hesitation due to fear of inadequate governmentwide protections of proprietary intellectual property.

What is planned as the Open Government Data Act would make publishing open data an official responsibility of the federal government, imposing obligations on agencies beyond publishing just the spending data required under the 2014 Data Accountability and Transparency Act. A draft prepared by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.; Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, contains references to “preserving intellectual property rights of and competitive advantage for federal contractors.”

But Government Executive’s talks with major contractors groups indicate cautious optimism about the bill’s concept but concerns about implementation.

“Making government data available to the public not only brings greater transparency and trust in government, it can also spur advances in research and create economic and entrepreneurial engines,” said Dave Wennergren, a longtime Pentagon management official now senior vice president for technology at the Professional Services Council. “And the administration's push to make the information available in machine-readable format that encourages research and re-use should be the norm.”

But implementing such a broad disclosure requirement demands “attention to ensure we are clear and consistent in ensuring that the right information is released and that sensitive information is protected,” Wennergren said in an email. “Moving to a common approach to identify, mark and control the dissemination of ‘controlled unclassified information’ must be consistently adopted across government hand-in-hand with the push to release more government data. Privacy-related information on employees and citizens must be safeguarded, as must sensitive information to include acquisition sensitive data, proprietary information and intellectual property.”  

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for the public sector at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, has been working with lawmakers to massage the draft bill. His group supported the DATA Act, and contractors overall support interoperability and data uniformity to make data more readable, he said, citing instances in which agencies themselves don’t know what data sets they own.

But he worries about data—both agency-generated and that compiled by agencies from outside sources—that is gathered by one agency but is not visible to contracting officers in other agencies.  This could include trade secrets and other company proprietary data and intellectual property that companies submit during solicitations, not merely financial data. “Once released on a public website, it cannot be taken back,” Hodgkins said. “We want to make sure that someone could be called out as directly responsible and could be held accountable” in case of a mishap.

The lawmakers, he added, have been “very open to industry feedback,” and in the end, he predicted, “we will end up with something everyone’s happy with.”