Why government open-data practices are low-tech

The open-data movement is still in its infancy. In a new report, the Data Foundation charts how it can grow up.

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The open-data movement is well-intentioned but hampered by the government's reliance on antiquated platforms and the lack of accepted standards, according to a new report from the Data Foundation.

Given the coming presidential transition, it is a critical time to weigh in on data policy. Although the Obama administration roared in with a focus on data -- launching Data.gov and tasking agencies with developing open-data plans and releasing datasets -- many experts question whether those efforts can be sustained into the next administration.

The Data Foundation and Grant Thornton interviewed 46 agency officials, lawmakers and other experts on the benefits and progress of the government's open-data efforts. Although the movement is still in the early stages, few experts doubt the ability of open data to revolutionize government operations. "The vast majority" of the 46 interviewed for the report said they believe open data represents a "radical transformation" or a "monumental trend."

"Investing in civic technology and committing to government transparency are key to a modern democracy," Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said in the report. "In 2016, citizens expect and deserve access to information about the laws that impact them on a daily basis."

Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Coalition and a co-author of the report, told FCW he does not want lawmakers to drift to the next in-vogue technology focus before fully realizing the enormous benefits of open data.

Waldo Jaquith, a government bureaucracy hacker at the General Services Administration's 18F, offers a more pessimistic outlook in the report, saying the government's open-data environment is "less of an ecosystem and more of a collection of hacks and workarounds" that are trapped in silos and dependent on legacy systems.

"Currently, open-data practices are appallingly crude," he said. "As open source has moved into an era of automation and containerization, so too must open data, before its laborious, antiquated practices cause the movement to collapse under its own weight."

Although Hollister is more upbeat, he warned that "we're at a critical inflection point." A lot is riding on the successful implementation of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act. Under that legislation, the government is due to publish its first open dataset on financial spending in May 2017.

Hollister also cited open-data progress made at the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the IRS in 2016 as "valuable for transparency and management" operations.

However, he made it clear that "we've only begun to tap those benefits," and the most useful, beneficial datasets "are the hardest to transform." He said federal spending data remains "fragmented," and agencies are still clinging to legacy reporting systems. The report notes that the protracted implementation could account for federal officials' skepticism about open data.

The report concludes that the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget could accelerate open-data adoption and speed the publication of data by asking a standards group to determine optimal fields and formats for the government's financial data.

Hollister said he would like the next administration to commit to fully implementing the Data Act, adding that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to do so.