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Bipartisan Kumbaya: President Trump turns Obama's open govt data policy into law

Evidence-based policy? What a novel idea...

Analysis President Trump on Monday signed legislation that attempts to make US government data more accessible for people and machines, though his predecessor deserves much of the credit.

The OPEN Government Data Act is contained within the the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R.4174, or FEPA), which attempts to normalize "evidence-based policymaking" as opposed to, say, reliance on gut-driven dictums or cynical fear mongering.

In practical terms that means non-private data should be stored in a commonly readable standard without rights restriction. The end result is that data modelling should get a lot easier.

It's got to have a pretty name

The acronym OPEN, an insufferable practice among those crafting US legislation, stands for "Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary."

Implausibly a product of bipartisan effort at a time of seemingly irreconcilable political differences, FEPA directs federal agencies to establish Chief Data Officers (CDO) who have data governance and data handling responsibilities. It also calls for a CDO Council, to allow agency CDOs to discuss best practices for data creation, use, protection, and distribution.

Title II of FEPA is the OPEN Data Act, which requires government data to be made available to the public in a machine-readable format under an open license, to the extent other laws don't preclude availability.

"The government-wide law will transform the way the government collects, publishes, and uses non-sensitive public information," said Sarah Joy Hays, acting executive director of the Data Coalition, in a statement emailed to The Register.

"Title II, the OPEN Government Data Act, which our organization has been working on for over three and a half years, sets a presumption that all government information should be open data by default: machine-readable and freely-reusable."

In a phone interview with The Register, Alexander B. Howard, an open government advocate based in Washington, DC, said, "It's a significant change. It's historic."

Through signed by Trump, the law represents the codification of an executive order for machine-readable data signed by President Obama in 2013, Howard explained. That order followed from the Obama administration's 2009 Open Government Directive.

Left or right, data is data

Such legislation is easy to write off as incremental and dry, Howard said, but this law is the outcome of years and years of effort on the part of Republicans and Democrats, of people of good will.

"One of the reasons there's been bipartisan and nonpartisan alignment," said Howard, "is whether you want shrink or grow government, you still need to understand it."

By making data more easily accessible and portable, by requiring evidence-based decision making, understanding becomes possible.

The law may affect businesses built around commercializing data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Howard suggested. Incumbents profiting from information arbitrage based on government data may find they have competition if the source data can be obtained with less friction.


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But he said there's lots of government data that doesn't have commercial value that's important for a functioning democracy.

He doesn't see increased data openness affecting the need for lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act.

"There will always be people who try to prevent the public from knowing things," Howard said. But he expects the OPEN Data Act will improve public knowledge in non-adversarial situations.

"Instead of people being stymied trying access information they've already paid for, they'll be able to find it through a search engine," he said.

People, Howard said, will be able to make better decisions with improved access to government data, like understanding healthcare or education services. He pointed to government-funded weather data as an example of the kind of information that benefits the public.

And government agencies may see better outcomes too. In terms of making macro-economic bets and policy decisions, there's now a tool and a set of levers to make sure quality information gets considered, he said.

"We're are little bit closer to returning to a shared set of facts," said Howard. ®

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