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Open Data Needs More than Executive Orders, Think Tank Says

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Executive orders aren't enough to bolster federal open data programs, and Congress needs to step up, a technology advocacy group says.

Congress has taken a handful of meaningful steps recently to encourage federal agencies to share data with each other and the public, according to a new Center for Data Innovation report. For instance, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, introduced the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act, also known as the OPEN Government Data Act, which would codify former President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order mandating federal agencies publish data online in a machine-readable format. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. And the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, passed in 2014, required federal agencies to make spending data public by May 9.

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Without further congressional action, there's "uncertainty about the extent to which the federal government will remain committed" to "opening its data to the public or refining and improving open-data efforts over time," the report said.

Here are a few of the advocacy group's recommendations to lawmakers:

  • Write a permanent government open data policy. The Obama administration's executive actions included the Open Government Directive, which mandated agencies update their open-data plans each year and share data in a machine-readable format. But Congress hasn't yet codified this policy; passing the OPEN Government Data Act could do just that. 
  • Let the Agriculture Department share farm data. USDA's Farm Service Agency is prohibited from releasing geospatial information about farms, per the 2008 Farm Bill that bans sharing information about agricultural operations. Still, USDA has a database of common land units and cropland, which can be used to understand crop performance. Allowing the department to publicly release data about "common land units," or the smallest chunks of farmland that have contiguous boundaries and common ownership, could help businesses analyze crop patterns.
  • Create an API for legislative data. Currently, Congress releases data about the legislative process—including votes, hearings and federal nominations—in bulk, instead of via an application programming interface, which would make using that data much easier to use.
  • Collect more data about LGBT populations. Government-sponsored surveys often don't address sexual orientation, "which leads to poor understanding about how policies impact the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community,” the report said. CDI recommended establishing a uniform policy on collecting that information, including "when and how to include the voluntary of this demographic information in federal surveys."
  • Encourage mental health providers to use electronic health records. Congress can expand the incentive programs that push health care providers to adopt higher-tech record-keeping systems, but they don't always apply to mental and behavioral health providers, CDI said.
  • Push credit reporting agencies to consider alternative data sources when determining credit scores. Credit applicants without a credit history often must pay higher premiums on various forms of insurance. To counter this potential bias, CDI recommended Congress pass the Credit Access and Inclusion Act, which would allow utility companies, landlords and phone companies to share an applicant's on-time payments to credit-reporting agencies. With that information, credit-reporting agencies could assess a candidate's financial risk.

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