Shutdown delays open data deadlines, raises API questions

VanRoekel, Energy Department's Bectel say data feeds should be deemed essential.

data door

Agencies now have until Nov. 30 to comply with the first wave of deliverables in President Barack Obama's open data order from May. The original Nov. 1 deadline was pushed back to accommodate delays arising from the partial government shutdown.

Despite the delay, agencies are on track to meet the administration goals, federal CIO Steve VanRoekel told reporters at the ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference on Oct. 29 in Williamsburg, Va.

The first round of deliverables includes an inventory and public listing of all agency data, processes for managing data, designating departments and individuals with responsibility for data release, priorities for data release, and documenting data that cannot be released. The goal is for agencies to manage federal data as a strategic public asset, which can be leveraged by private-sector enterprises for business purposes. One famous example is Global Positioning System data, which gave rise to an industry in personal navigation devices, but there are other kinds of data that could be ripe for exploitation if they were released in usable formats.

U.S. Census data is used to provide a deep demographic dive into neighborhoods by online real estate services Zillow and Trulia. The Energy Department facilitates the distribution of energy pricing data from utilities nationwide through its Green Button program, which allows people to track energy costs. There are also datasets on vehicle fuel economy and data on the energy use of appliances rated under the EnergyStar program. Many agencies are releasing data as application programming interfaces (APIs) that can be plugged into online services and mobile applications and make calls on government databases for specific information.

During the shutdown, however, most of these datasets and APIs were shut off. Weather data and other information deemed essential to life and property were kept online. But as businesses increasingly tap into government data as a resource, there might need to be changes in the priority put on maintaining access under all conditions.

"As private sector companies rely on government data, I think making them available and essential out of the context of a government shutdown will be something we have to think about," VanRoekel told FCW. While he was careful not to comment on the statute that applies to government shutdowns, it's clear that the administration is looking to have government data play a more essential role in the economy.

Robert Bectel, chief technology officer for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is also excited about products that could be built out of his agency's data. And he sees the hazards of limiting access to that data in situations like the recent budget standoff.

"If the agency builds a product, markets it and puts it out there, it's incumbent on us to support it. If we're turned off, we've got a problem," Bectel said.

The issue of suspended APIs did not affect the biggest users of government data during the shutdown, as they typically download whole datasets and maintain them on their own servers.

"In many cases we don't want them to hook into government APIs because we don't have the resources to manage their load," VanRoekel said. "I think there's a balancing act to make sure we're providing uptime [for commercial users of government data], much in the same way weather and GPS are provided in real time," he said.

Even though the deadline for the first round of open data deliverables was delayed, the government is still pushing ahead with its next round of initiatives. In a new policy document timed to coincide with the Open Government Partnership annual summit in London, the government announced planned improvements to the Data.gov website that is the main repository for open data, as well as dedicated efforts in the areas of nutritional, agricultural and disaster-relief data. The effort also includes plans to harmonize Freedom of Information Act regulations and practices across agencies, and to develop a tool for requestors of government information, such as journalists and watchdog groups, to submit requests through a single, consolidated portal.

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