Senate Passes Bill to Make Government Data More Accessible

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The legislation would require agencies to publish all nonsensitive information in a machine-readable format.

Lawmakers on Wednesday approved legislation that would require all public federal data to be published in a machine-readable format and mandate agencies appoint chief data officers to oversee their open data efforts.

If signed into law, the measure would support the Trump administration’s push to spur private innovation and economic growth through government data.

The Senate unanimously passed the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act as part of a larger bill to support evidence-based policymaking. Both chambers have previously approved their own versions of the bill, but the most recent iteration reconciles differences between the two.

The bill now awaits a vote in the House.

“It’s the people’s data,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement. “They paid for it, and they deserve to access it, whether it’s weather, traffic, census or budget numbers.”

The legislation would mandate agencies make all non-sensitive data available to the public in a machine-readable format and largely without legal limitations on how it can be used. It would also require the Office of Management and Budget to help agencies stand up “comprehensive data inventories” that include metadata on each dataset they possess.

Under the bill, the General Services Administration would also create an online portal where the public can search and access information published by each agency.

Additionally, the act would codify the chief data officer position, requiring every agency to appoint someone to manage its data assets and oversee broad data governance. OMB would create a Chief Data Officer Council to advise the government on open data policies, encourage information sharing between agencies and improve the collection and use of federal data.

The bill would not only be “transformative” for government transparency, but it would also support a key aspect of the President’s Management Agenda, said Christian Hoehner, the senior policy director at the Data Coalition. The White House has long discussed how leveraging federal data could streamline agencies’ internal processes and spur economic growth, and Hoehner told Nextgov the bill very much aligns with those priorities.

Hoehner, who has worked with lawmakers to shape the legislation since 2015, added the measure could offer guidance for OMB as it puts the finishing touches on its federal data strategy.

Uniting agencies under a common set of open data principles “will really help the industry innovate off of data and ramp up its use both internally and externally,” and it’s critical the government offers consistent guidance for those efforts, he said.