Budget Cuts, White House Apathy Stifling Open Data Efforts


Tight budgets and staff cuts are hindering the accuracy and accessibility of federal open data initiatives, experts said.

Government data every day informs decisions in policy, farming, business and countless other fields, but open data experts worry the accuracy and accessibility of that information are threatened amid sparse funding and apathy from the Trump administration.

“Government data has long served [as] an authoritative source of information about the state of our society and our economy,” said Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation. Open information provides a “common basis of understanding of reality,” he said, but policymakers have begun “waging a war on data” when it doesn’t support their ideas.

Castro joined a panel of data experts on Tuesday to discuss the current state of federal data initiatives and the potential consequences of those programs not getting the resources they need.

Federal officials have embraced a number of open data initiatives in recent years, and since taking office, the Trump administration has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to “unleashing the power of data” to create a more effective government. But recently many agencies are finding their data collecting abilities impeded by tightening budgets and staff cuts, and the White House doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to relieve the pressure, according to panelists.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is properly funding critical data infrastructure,” said former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who currently serves as executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics.

Changes in technology are lowering response rates and increasing the cost of traditional data collection, he said, but agencies are “getting squeezed tremendously in their ability to bring on the kind of staff they need to do the kind of innovation they need to do to produce high-quality data.”

Thompson pointed to the slew of budgetary and technical obstacles the Census faces ahead of the 2020 count as a symptom of government’s declining focus on data collection in general. An inaccurate decennial will not only leave major portions of the population underrepresented, he said, but will also skew critical policymaking and research for the next decade.

While many agencies face barriers to collecting data, others are beginning to scale back the amount of information they make public. In its 2017 Crime in the United States Report, the FBI removed more than two-thirds of the data tables that had been published the previous year and told FiveThirtyEight the decision was based on a lack of web traffic for certain tables.

Changing data schema, removing certain attributes and increasing bureaucratic steps to accessing data are all ways the government can keep information hidden from the public eye, said Denice Ross, a public interest technology fellow at New America who previously advised the Obama administration on data initiatives.

Ross told Nextgov it’s not unusual for new administrations to be reluctant to open data at first—until you have success with open data initiatives, “you tend to lock it down,” she said. But she added the current administration seems to be keeping a tighter leash on information.

“There used to be an ecosystem that [the White House] was fostering to help encourage those authentic conversations between the civil servants and the public,” she said, but now “there’s less of that healthy exchange.”

Beyond stifling collaboration between federal data experts, Ross also said the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be taking any steps to foster open data as a practice, despite its assertions otherwise. The president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, which oversaw many of the Obama-era open data programs, remains without a leader, and Trump has yet to appoint a chief technology officer.

To foster a culture of open data, Ross said private citizens and researchers must begin showing the government how they use federal data in their work. “Bringing it down to real people in diverse situations” will help agencies “realize the value of this data,” and help foster a stronger relationship between data producers and data users, she said.