Data is becoming more and more vital within society. Tech giants like Facebook and Amazon buy and sell data as they see fit, privacy rights are consistently in the news, and the “internet of things” is rapidly arriving, if it isn’t here already. Raw data is the key to all of this growth, and with so much raw data being produced it can be hard to manage and make use of it all. This is especially true of the government, which has many regulations that slow government actions, dragging down its speed in direct conflict with the real world which is becoming more fast-paced by the day. To attempt to make up for this, the federal government has recently passed three bills related to data in an attempt to streamline data usage to ensure government is as efficient and as effective as it can be with data.
The first of these acts is called the Geospatial Data Act of 2018. Geospatial data, sometimes called spatial data, is information and data that has some form of geographic aspect to it. This data includes information like GPS, satellite imagery, geotagging, coordinates, ZIP codes, and other factors of geography. The Geospatial Data Act was originally introduced in 2017 but was met with significant backlash from the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) community, which creates and uses geospatial data, for limitations it placed on those who submit GIS data. The proposed law would force many companies to shut down for not being within the narrow requirements of the law, resulting in many lost jobs and a devastated GIS IT community. In 2018 the law was reintroduced with said provisions removed and, with the support of the GIS community, passed and signed into law.
This Act has several key features, namely that this data is shared publicly and openly and is easily usable. It put in place the Federal Geographic Data Committee to coordinate data strategy, a government-wide data platform for geospatial data and an advisory committee to make sure agencies are following the law effectively. At the agency level it ensures agencies use open standards and formats that can be accessed by other agencies within the government and private organizations. This is shown succinctly in this video posted by GIS company Esri. It’s important to note that the private sector and a significant portion of the government already does all of this, so the transition won’t be massively difficult and shouldn’t face too many issues. This Act has been applauded as key in allowing data to be used for the public good.
The Geospatial Data Act was considered so successful that two more laws joined it in the push for open data. The OPEN Data Act, with OPEN standing for Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary, was passed and signed into law in 2019. It was initially proposed in 2016 but never made it through legislative process. This act is effectively the same act as the Geospatial Act but for all non-sensitive government data, which led it to being supported by many interest groups. It requires all “federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats. It requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government”. An Enterprise Data Inventory is the same as an agency-wide data platform – think a portal or client that stores all the data. This law mandates each agency have a data platform to manage all non-sensitive data, and requires a government-wide data platform. The law also requires agencies to assign a nonpartisan chief data officer, with all chief data officers joining together on a council to promote best practices and the easy transfer of data as needed.
The OPEN Data Act was signed as Title II of a broader act called the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEBP). This act attempts to address “unintentional limits on data access, inadequate privacy practices, and insufficient capacity to generate the amount of quality evidence needed to support policy decisions in government”. The act was initially proposed in 2017 following the findings of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which was established to ensure government is using data and information as effectively as possible to influence public policy. The cosponsors of the Committee and eventual Act were House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat. All recommendations from the Commission were unanimous, showing the bipartisan nature of this topic and support for the law. In short, this law establishes best practices for government to use data to come up with effective public policy.
It’s important to take all of these laws in one large view to truly understand the implications and long term effects. All of these Acts do the same thing: normalize all non-sensitive data in machine-readable formats, place it all in one place, and ensure the public and other agencies have access to it. From there the public can use the data to their own ends to spur innovation and growth. For agencies, it can save them money: there’s no need to go gather data on a topic if another agency already has the data available and easily accessible. There are also legal implications: agencies can no longer hold on to any documents that are considered non-sensitive for any reason, allowing watchdogs and other groups easy access to documentation to ensure these agencies are doing their job right and without bias.
These changes make it that much easier for the government to cite evidence for its public policy and improves the debates around said public policy, which is the push the FEBP makes. If an administration wants to push an agenda it can use easily-accessible and publicly-accessible data provided by the government to back its argument. The opposition has access to the same data and can analyze it to come up with their own conclusions. In addition to this, said opponents might be able to find data from other agencies or even the same agency that can contradict the data initially cited. It gives all sides in public policy an easy way to gather information that can be shared and cited easily.
These laws are fantastic for the data analytics industry. If more data is available and accessible more data will need to be analyzed, which ultimately will spur more innovation, leading to an industry that is more efficient and creative.