How the shutdown affects open data

Developers rely on government data to build public-facing apps and services, and a lapse in appropriations can make things complicated.

Shutterstock ID: 116697148 By extradeda

Some open data services from government are offline or going without updates during the partial government shutdown. Given the widespread reliance on that data to build applications and services, the lapse can have downstream effects beyond just pausing agency websites.

Under current policy, the only IT that remains in operation is a system that protects life, or property, or is essential to the functioning of another system that is funded by a non-discretionary source; employees who update the data on the government's open data sets and application programming interfaces (APIs) are not included.

"The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse" in appropriations, the Office of Management and Budget's guidance reads.

As a result, open government advocates have raised concerns about the fate of this data and of the APIs built on federal data when Congress can't come to an agreement.

Statistical agencies at the Department of Commerce, for instance — including the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Economic Development Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau— are not updating the much of the data behind their APIs during the shutdown.

"There's data always being captured and in many cases is available, former Commerce CIO Steve Cooper said, noting that NOAA satellite data collection isn't paused. But it's different for survey data produced and disseminated by human activity. "That activity, if there are no people available to do that activity, doesn't occur until people come back and as a result there's no update to newly captured data," Cooper said.

Private organizations that leverage large quantities of government data often opt to download data in bulk before a shutdown.

"For this very reason, we don't use the Census's API for our data updates," said Bernie Langer, senior data analyst and content marketing lead at PolicyMap. "We download flat files of all the Census data we use, and store it on our systems. This way, we're unaffected by any outages that might come up due to a shutdown or anything else."

Langer said he expects some updates will be delayed by the shutdown.

Users of such services "may not be aware the data you're getting may be two or three weeks old," said Cooper.

Alex Howard, open government advocate and civic tech journalist, said the disruption to these updates, caused by political disputes, could damage trust in both government and its data.

"If an office is shut down, that's one thing; if a website is shut down, that's another," he said. "If an API doesn't work anymore, that has a cascading effect.… There's a huge risk to public trust in services."

Christian Hoehner, senior director of policy for the Data Coalition, said the shutdown could impact on the broader government move to open data, raising concerns "that a prolonged shutdown will affect the timeliness, completeness, usability and accuracy of government data."