What does it mean for local agencies and the public at large?

On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act into law. A key component of FEBP is the OPEN Government Data Act, which passed the US House and Senate back in December with rare bipartisan support.

This new legislation has been years in the making and codifies key pieces of President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy Memorandum. In addition to the broader initiative to improve government transparency and drive citizen engagement, the OPEN Government Data Act also promises to increase the accessibility and usability of government information for other key stakeholders including journalists, academics, and entrepreneurs in both the public and private sector.

OPEN is actually an acronym that stands for Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary, and under the new law federal agencies are now required to publish all non-sensitive government information online in a machine-readable format. That’s good news for everyone, especially researchers and developers looking for data to fuel innovation.

For the record, the “non-sensitive government data” we’re talking about generally includes information on weather, traffic, census, budgets, and more. More importantly, it’s data that taxpayers actually paid to develop and fund. In short, the public financed this information, and now the law says they’ll finally have free and easy access to it.

Making government data not only accessible, but machine readable is key because it means it’s searchable and therefore more actionable. A 2017 letter of support for the legislation signed by more than 80 businesses, industry groups, civic organizations, and transparency advocates argued that opening up data to people in both the public and private sectors would effectively drive development of “new tools and services that address some of the country’s most pressing economic and social challenges.”

Until now, many government agencies simply scanned documents and posted PDFs to their website to comply with Federal Open Information Act (FOIA) requirements. While this checked the transparency box, it didn’t make the data easily searchable or particularly useful. With this new legislation, that’s about to change — for good.

While the new guidelines specifically apply to federal agencies, the implications are far-reaching. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that open and transparent government is no longer merely aspirational. For democracies here and abroad, government data is increasingly open by default. And, there’s ample evidence to show that this global sentiment is being embraced at the local level as more cities and towns endeavor to establish and hone an online presence to better engage busy constituents.

In fact, over the last three years ClearGov has built free public-facing pages for 20,000+ local governments showcasing government data in easy-to-understand infographic-style profiles. And, hundreds of towns and school districts in 20 different states have since claimed their profiles, expanding them to include valuable commentary and relevant peer comparisons. Some are even building out project pages that enable residents to view budgets, blueprints, timelines and more for capital improvements, new construction, and other initiatives. Residents can even subscribe to receive updates automatically every time the data changes.

While OPEN data is now officially the law of the land, it’s not likely the transparency police will be enforcing it any time soon. However, it does set the bar for clear governance — and there’s no going back. It’s time to start sharing public-owned data with the public, and making it easy to understand and actionable.

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