Federal Data Should be Open to the Public By Default, Lawmakers Say

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas Jacquelyn Martin/AP File Photo

A bipartisan group of representatives and senators plan to introduce a bill requiring federal agencies to, wherever possible, publish their data in a machine-readable format.

Data collected by the federal government should, by default, be online, searchable and accessible by the general public, a bipartisan group of lawmakers believes.

New legislation would require federal agencies to publish their data in a “modern, open and electronic format,” eventually to be stored on the Data.gov hub, according to draft legislation reviewed by Nextgov.

On the cusp of an administration change, the “Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act,’’ or the “‘OPEN Government Data Act,” aims to codify President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order, which mandated federal agencies share data in a machine-readable format.

Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, are preparing to introduce the bill in the House. Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., are expected to introduce a Senate version soon.

Today, agencies sometimes present their data in large, unwieldy physical or virtual documents, expecting the searcher to do their own digging, Schatz said during remarks at a discussion in Washington on Thursday. Federal data is “theoretically available to the public, but is not meaningfully available to the public,” he said.

Exemplars include the Education Department, which shares the data it collects about student performance and college tuition for its “College Scorecard,” and is designed to let students compare institutions. Also, coming in for praise was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which makes its weather observations and forecasts available to the public, who often access it on mobile phones, Kilmer said.

The OPEN Government Data Act would require the heads of each agency, in collaboration with the Office of Management and Budget, to keep any inventory of their data that shows any assets “created, collected, under the control or direction of, or maintained by the agency.”

The bill would allow agencies to withhold data that would “harm a specific, articulable interest protected by law” or that it is otherwise prohibited from sharing.

But “when deciding whether to withhold information, the public’s interest in access to the information should be weighed against the specific harm likely caused by its release,” the bill says. “[W]hen the interests are equal, openness should prevail.”