Why is federal government data disappearing?
© Getty Images

The White House recently deleted all of the data on its open data portal, which served as a public clearinghouse for data on everything from federal budgets to climate change initiatives.

This is a red flag, since for eight years, the Obama White House championed the practice of making government data freely available to the public in order to promote transparency and accountability, to serve as a resource for researchers, and to allow innovators to create new tools and services that spur economic activity and solve social problems.

While the Trump administration has not yet signaled that it will oppose open data across the federal government, its silence on the issue suggests that open data may not receive the same level of priority it has in the past. In sharp contrast, President Obama declared a "new era of openness" on his first full day in office and directed federal agencies to be more transparent.

Rather than wait for the Trump administration to change course, Congress should move quickly to adopt the bipartisan OPEN Data Act and permanently codify an open data policy for the U.S. government.

Unlike Data.gov, the federal government's primary open data portal, the White House open data portal was by no means the most crucial repository of data, primarily consisting of machine-readable versions of White House reports, policy initiatives and budgets. Moreover, most of this data should still be available through an archived version of the portal, though a handful of datasets do seem to still be missing, particularly budgeting data for fiscal year 2012.

It is possible that this is merely a case of poor communication: The new administration may be in the process of updating its website and forgot to alert users of the scheduled downtime.

ADVERTISEMENT
Unfortunately, this latest action comes on the heels of an earlier decision in February by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to shield government data from public scrutiny by removing data collected by the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

 

The data consisted of inspection reports, enforcement actions, regulatory correspondence and other information related to APHIS' investigations of animal welfare issues, ranging from puppy mills to abuse of animals in research labs, and the USDA decided it should not be publicly available due to ill-conceived concerns about the privacy of animal abusers.

Not only does this action prevent the public from accessing valuable data about animal abuse, but it prevents pet stores in seven states from complying with state laws requiring them to only deal with breeders with clean inspection reports. Stores in these states could previously use APHIS's database to easily identify breeders without histories of violations, but now that database is no longer available to the public.

Instead of simply censoring personally identifiable information when privacy concerns arise, the USDA decided that members of the public should have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to access any of this data — a process that can take months.

The private sector will be unable to rely on government data if federal agencies can make arbitrary and capricious decisions about when to publish datasets. As Obama recognized in one of his executive orders, "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve."

For example, some sources are reporting that the administration plans to wipe data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) related to climate change. Reacting to Trump's long history of dismissing climate science and reported plans to reduce the EPA's ability to study climate issues, a large number of civil society groups, civic hackers and concerned scientists have taken to archiving federal climate and environmental data to make it available through a non-government website, fearing that the administration will delete or alter it.

There is no definitive evidence that the Trump administration intends to roll back the valuable commitments to open data that Obama made during his administration, which require federal agencies to treat their data as open and machine-readable by default. However, the Trump administration has also failed to make any indication that it intends to honor or expand upon these commitments.

In fact, the White House has archived the guidance on open data from the Office of Management and Budget along with the Open Government National Action Plans, which detail the U.S. government's commitments to meet the goals of the multinational Open Government Partnership, which include publishing open data, further indicating that it does not consider these policies as its own.

Open data has always been a bipartisan issue. Regardless of how the Trump administration decides to approach open data (https://open.whitehouse.gov as of this writing displays a vague disclaimer simply stating "check back soon for new data"), Congress should act swiftly to ensure that publishing open data remains a permanent responsibility of the federal government so it is not subject to changing political winds.

In the last days of the 114th Congress, the Senate unanimously passed the OPEN Government Data Act to do exactly that, and given the bill's bipartisan support, Congress should view the reintroduction and passage of the bill as a quick win that would benefit the public and private sectors alike.

Joshua New is a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute affiliated with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.