There are roughly 200,000 data sets available from the federal government, including information on weather and meteorology, patents and census data on household size, income and occupation.
Kevin Merritt, founder and CEO of Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company focused on improving access to government data, guesses that there could be 20 million government-generated data sets out there that aren’t yet being shared with the public.
“We’re probably 1 percent of the way there,” Merritt said.
But legislation recently proposed by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington’s 6th district, which includes most of Tacoma and the Olympic peninsula, could help unlock that trove of information.
The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act would require federal agencies to create and share an inventory of the data sets that they’re generating, and to make that data free and publicly available in a machine-readable format through the website Data.gov.
The goal of the legislation is “to give further access in a way that could help people and create jobs and help the government save money,” Kilmer said. “There is a lot of potential here.”
Kilmer proposed the legislation last month with co-sponsors Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, as well as senators Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
This month, Socrata and 47 other companies, nonprofits and organizations that include Amazon Web Services, EMC Corp. and Taxpayers for Common Sense signed letters of support for the proposed law.
“The key to remember about all of it is when the data is open and accurate and disclosed to the public, people can apply it to public good,” said Alex Howard, senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit promoting government transparency, which also signed on in support.
Howard hopes the legislation could create a “cultural shift” within government agencies so they begin recognizing that the data sets are being collected not only to sit on shelves or to aid government workers, but that it’s gathered on behalf of taxpayers — and that’s who it belongs to.
“We have a right to information,” he said, “unless it impacts security or affects privacy laws.”
Proponents cite numerous potential benefits to releasing more data. It could have more quickly exposed the failings in the VA hospitals that led to patient deaths due to medical care shortages. It could help identify lead-contaminated drinking water, such as is plaguing Flint, Mich., and communities elsewhere. Data from the Department of Justice could reveal patterns in the use of excessive force in policing.
And while the data could help improve government services, which might appeal to those on the Democratic side of the aisle, it could also help ferret out waste and inefficiencies, a potential boon to those in the Republican party who argue for smaller, leaner government programs.
“Any kind of process that is more transparent lends itself to becoming more efficient,” Socrata’s Merritt said. He also noted that the information sharing could help reduce the data silo problem between government agencies and departments, preventing them from needlessly collecting the same data.
Additionally, Kilmer is excited about the data as a resource for entrepreneurs.
“For a number of industries and companies that are big data firms,” he said, “having access to more data presents more opportunities.”
In truth, government agencies are already supposed to be making data sets more readily available to the public. The day after President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he wrote a presidential memo pledging that his would be the most transparent and open government to date. Later in the year, he followed up with a more detailed executive memorandum, M-10-06.
Then in 2013, he bolstered that action with another executive order and associated memorandum, M-13-13, that instructed agencies that their default approach for data management should be making it available to the public in a format that is machine readable.
The proposed OPEN Government Data Act, or H.R. 5150, would protect these executive actions — which could disappear with the swearing in of a new president — by making them law, and strengthen the memorandum. The act requires agencies and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to regularly review and report on how well the transparency and access rules are being followed, among other provisions to bolster access.
“A lot of this is giving people the understanding that this isn’t going to go away with a change of administration,” Howard said.
And while the rules would expand data sharing, advocates said it could actually make sensitive information more secure by requiring the agencies collecting the data to carefully track what information they have so they know what needs to be protected.
Supporters of the act are hopeful that the something-for-everyone aspect of the legislation, which is reflected in its bipartisan support from the House and the Senate, will give it a better shot at passage.
Though few are inclined to publicly object to government transparency, there could be resistance from some folks within government agencies and from companies whose business model has them collecting harder-to-access data and selling it back to the government or private sector in a more useful form.
Howard pointed out that efforts to reform and strengthen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules that provide access to government records are continuing to struggle despite seemingly widespread support.
Kilmer said he’s pushing for a hearing for the legislation and continuing to build a coalition of supporters and co-sponsors.
“The biggest impediment,” he said, “is that Congress is not a legislative juggernaut right now.”