Data Management

Shutdown could cripple apps

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The shutdown manual provided by the Office of Management and Budget is putting a lot of public-facing government websites on the shelf as Congress and the White House try to come to terms on a temporary spending plan. At the same time, data feeds and government-run application programming interfaces (APIs) that answer calls for data from software and app developers are also going dark.

The datasets, tool catalog and government apps hosted by the General Services Administration at are shut down, as are the popular Census APIs, data from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Center for Education Statistics, and other federal agencies. FCW has learned that government servers were heavily tasked by users of government data downloading files in advance of a shutdown.

The nonprofit data-mapping service PolicyMap, which relies on Census data, is still up and running, according to a blog post. PolicyMap doesn't use APIs to pull data, relying on summary files it downloads from the government and hosts on its own servers. The government is pushing developers in that direction, and PolicyMap will likely shift to APIs.

"[The shutdown] doesn't give me pause because we're not there yet," said Elizabeth Nash, director of data and product development at PolicyMap. "I think we can feel safe for the next couple of months using downloaded data."

Weather prediction app Dark Sky is still up and running, powered by data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been deemed necessary to protect life and property. App co-creator Adam Grossman said that he hasn't noticed any disruption in service.

Real estate data site Trulia, which uses some government data in its mapping, said it is not affected by the government shutdown. Competing real estate listings site Zillow, often touted by U.S. CTO Todd Park as an example of a thriving business powered by government data, also said that the shutdown did not affect its use of government data.

The Obama administration's open data policy gives preference to APIs over bulk downloads of data. The benefit to developers is that government stores and refreshes the data. However, relying on APIs potentially threatens the viability of apps using government data during a shutdown.

"APIs count on developers maintaining a live connection to government systems," Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, told FCW. "It gives the government more control and lets them monitor use. But in a situation like this it's potentially disastrous, because applications are likely to break."

It's not clear if there's any system in place to notify developers that an API has been shut off. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is the top federal cheerleader for Open Data policy, did not return a request for comment.

"Responding to government shutdown by closing sources of open data is the wrong thing to do, unless there's some cost associated with keeping it online," said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition.

Current policy does not allow for keeping APIs on during an appropriations lapse. Although it's not clear what costs, if any, are associated with keeping APIs and datasets open to the public during a shutdown, OMB says cost is not the issue.

"The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services," the guidance states. The only thing that matters is whether a system protects life, or property, or is essential to the functioning of another system that is funded by a non-discretionary source.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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