White House bars agencies from posting some statistics

Privacy and other concerns prompt administration officials to pull several submissions to the transparency Web site Data.gov.

The Obama administration has declined to post, and in some cases has removed, several sets of downloadable statistics that agencies submitted last week for publication online, due to privacy and other concerns.

Agencies sent the Office of Management and Budget almost 300 data sets to post on Jan. 22, in an effort to comply with a December open government directive that required they file at least three new listings in a public statistics clearinghouse called Data.gov within 60 days.

But researchers at the transparency group Openthegovernment.org noticed on Monday that some of the data sets were no longer available, according to a table on Data.gov showing the number of contributions per agency. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had posted four sets as of Jan. 22, but now is down to two. The Peace Corps went from three sets last week to none.

The directive required agencies to submit high-value information, specifically records that could be used to hold the government accountable, elaborate on the agency's work, display financial opportunities for the public or meet some other citizen desire. The publication of the statistics marked the first major step in a sweeping policy announced one year ago aimed at forcing federal agencies to disclose more information, collaborate with the private sector on projects and involve the public in decisions.

Neither OMB nor the agencies informed the public the data sets were removed.

NRC is looking into who took down the data, why and what notifications should have been issued, agency spokesman Scott Burnell said. He added that power reactor status reports -- one of the groups of data removed -- already are available on NRC's Web site.

OMB spokesman Tom Gavin said the data sets unaccounted for on Monday were not posted because they raised privacy, security or other concerns.

"Out of an abundance of caution, those data sets were not published on Friday," he said. "The concerns are being examined and, if they can be addressed, the data set will be posted."

He added the directive does not supersede existing privacy and security restrictions.

"This review is right in line with what was established in the December directive," Gavin said, referring to the language in the order: "With respect to information, the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security or other restrictions)."

A Peace Corps' spokesman said the agency's data sets were posted initially, and then taken down.

"It is our understanding that OMB decided to take the data down," agency spokesman Joshua Field said on Tuesday. OMB maintains the site, not the individual agencies. "We are working with OMB and expect the data to be live again on Data.gov within days," Field added.

The U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service had submitted one data set on Friday, according to the Data.gov site tracking department participation. No records are listed now. The Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation shed one submission, going from four registered sets on Friday to three on Monday. Bureau records that are still available on Data.gov describe Lower Colorado River water elevation and reservoir storage, water quality from the Tracy Fish Collection Facility in Byron, Calif., and the locations of water flow and meteorological monitoring stations within the Great Plains region.

USDA officials said OMB made the call not to publish the information. Interior officials said the bureau's data raised questions within the administration. Some of the sets are undergoing another round of review to address these questions. Department officials expect to have a resolution within the next couple of days.

The Social Security Administration went from 17 posts on Friday to 16 on Monday. SSA officials said they had uploaded one set twice, so they removed the duplicate. "No content was lost," SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said.

Amy Fuller Bennett, program associate at Openthegovernment.org, discovered the listings were missing while comparing a spreadsheet she created on Friday to track compliance with the directive to the items inventoried at Data.gov on Monday. She now is updating the public on agency participation, independently, on the group's Web site.

Openthegovernment.org officials commended the White House's caution, but said the administration should have told the public that it had taken data offline. Fuller suggested that if any agency removes content from Data.gov, then the site should note the deletion and explain the reason for the removal.