New bill makes the public owners of government data

In a bipartisan push, lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would make federal data open and publicly available by default.

Shutterstock image. Copyright: wavebreakmedia

A bill unveiled April 14 would codify and extend President Barack Obama's push for open government data.

The Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act would push agencies to abandon proprietary data formats and justify a failure to publish data publicly rather than the other way around.

"This is the public's data," Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said at an event sponsored by the Data Coalition and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's Center for Data Innovation. "It's been bought and paid for with our tax dollars, and we need to find an efficient way to get it out."

The House bill's sponsors include Farenthold and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.). A Senate companion bill is slated to be sponsored by Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

The law codifies the intent behind Obama's 2013 executive order that required agencies to promulgate data in open, machine-readable formats.

Advocates say the bill is a major win for transparency.

"This is officially where we can say the United States is full steam ahead on open data," said Josh New, a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation.

Kat Duffy, director of the Sunlight Foundation's Sunlight Labs, echoed Farenthold when she said the bill contained "magic language"-- a nod to the specification that the American people, not agencies or federal employees, own the data the government generates.

Duffy said she is sympathetic to the intelligence community's concerns that too much openness could expose sensitive information. But such concerns should be addressed rather than used as a reason not to default to openness, she added.

She also noted that the bill has plenty of room for improvement. Its definition of "machine-readable," for instance, could be construed as accepting PDFs, from which it can be labor intensive to extract data.

Duffy also cited the potential for agencies' enterprisewide data inventories to be published publicly, which she hopes will be incorporated during congressional markups of the bill.

Schatz said the OPEN Government Data Act is aimed at bringing new government data to light, but it will also take government data that is "theoretically" available to the public and make it "meaningfully" available.

"It's our data," Schatz said. "And it has to be in a usable format."

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