Crafting Open Government Data Policies in a Complex Era

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There is broad agreement on the value of open data policies to drive government transparency, public accountability and citizen-centered services, providing valuable data resources to citizens while often enhancing the effectiveness of government.  Open government data is integral to the management of the federal government, leading not only to better decisions, but also to generation of higher quality data as government leaders learn to benefit from data-driven innovation.  As Federal CIO Suzette Kent recently put it, “data drives tomorrow’s innovation.”

At the same time, the types of data that governments deal with are increasingly diverse and complex, involving cases where the government collects or licenses private sector data, and sometimes combines this data with data produced by the government.  In many cases, this private sector data is proprietary and comes with intellectual property protections, providing for use by the government but stopping short of being provided without restrictions for public use.

On June 7, 2018, SIIA held an event on Capitol Hill, Crafting Open Data Policies in an Era of Complex Data, that explored the need to develop open data policies that are tailored to maximize the benefits of government data, while also ensuring that data produced in the private sector and collected by, or licensed to, the government is handled appropriately.  Overly-broad open data policies—or mandates—can threaten intellectual property rights in private sector data, and disincentivize joint partnerships and innovation. 

The event was kicked-off by Congressman Paul Mitchell (R-MI), who provided exceptional insights about not only open government data, but the need to transparency, data security and privacy with respect to personal data, both in the government and the private sector.

The event focused heavily on a report recently published by Rich Beutel, Principal at Cyrrus Analytics, Hybrid Data and the Promise of a Modern Digital Government, that introduces the term “hybrid data.” “Hybrid data” describes the increasingly complex government data environment where public-private partnerships and various arrangements lead to a government data ecosystem that is not just government data, but often blended-data sets that combine data from the public and private sectors.  On our panel, Rich explained his conclusion that the principles of open government data are not unbounded, but rather have limitations, and open government data policies need to take “a more nuanced approach.”  Rich highlighted that “if you’re going to have quality curated data, someone’s got to pay for it.”

Robert Shea, Principal at Grant Thornton, concluded that we’ve recently gained substantial transparency around government data, but also that we’ve experienced a lot of stagnation recently.  He explained that while we have unlocked the value of a lot of data, there is much more data and more work to be done.  Robert provided an overview of the Data Foundation’s State of the Union of Open Data, which notes increased standardization and availability of data, but also poses that strong leadership is key for us to expand open data and transparency and get to a place where we’re improving the usefulness of government data.  Robert also drew from leadership role on the Commission for Evidence-based Policymaking, highlighting the report from that Commission and its conclusion that decisions need to be more based on facts and findings.

Adam Huftalen, Policy Manager for RELX, Inc., discussed how Lexis-Nexis, among other RELX businesses, was founded and relies on the ability to access, curate, and add value to public data.  He explained that while there are many examples of effective public-private partnerships, there is also the potential for unintended consequences of open government data policies.  He noted that private property rights are at stake and that there is risk of conflating open government data and copyrighted content.  To this point, Adam spoke about the role of the private sector in publishing peer reviewed scientific and technical literature, where the research is often funded in part by the government.

While there is unanimous support for making government data widely available in usable formats – to citizens, activists, companies, academics, and entrepreneurs—the event highlighted the critical need to get these policies right.  Subjecting this full range of information to the same set of “open” requirements on government data presents risks to the entities that produce and maintain proprietary data and partner with the government, and they ultimately will limit the ability of the government to utilize this data for its critical missions.

If we fail to do this, we will threaten the government’s ability to maximize data-driven innovation and tomorrow’s opportunities for growth. 

David David LeDuc is Senior Director, Public Policy at SIIA. He focuses on e-commerce, privacy, cyber security, cloud computing, open standards, e-government and information policy. Follow the SIIA public policy team on Twitter at @SIIAPolicy.