‘Something for everyone’ in Center for Data Innovation’s congressional recommendations

It’s hard  to imagine Congress as trendy, what with its pleated dress pants and conservative skirt-suits, but Joshua New, policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, says Capitol Hill is doing its part to keep up with the Joneses.

“The desire to promote innovation is very much en vogue in government, on both sides of the aisle,” New said during an interview with Federal News Radio about the center’s recent report, “10 Steps Congress Can Take to Accelerate Data Innovation.”

“The last time we did this report there were 12 items in it, and a lot of those have since been adopted or have gone into practice,” New said. “Things like establishing a smart cities pilot project; the Department of Transportation launched their smart cities challenge. Closing the satellite data gap, [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s] come a long way in supplementing the way it manages and collects satellite data. We’ve seen a lot of progress around financial regulatory data, so we have made some progress and there’s definitely an appetite for it.”

This year’s report focuses on three areas where Congress can take action to speed up data innovation. They involve:

  • Publishing data the government already collects.
  • Collecting more data that can be put to valuable use.
  • Encouraging industries to make better use of data.

“This is the second iteration of this kind of data innovation agenda that we’ve produced,” New said. “Being the Center for Data Innovation, of course we’re very pro-data innovation. We tried to present this report as kind of like a checklist that anyone could look at, and if they want to figure out how the government can use data better, promote innovation in the private sector, they can just pick one of these. We clearly outline the problem and outline the solution for a pretty diverse group of issues, everything from how the government shares agriculture data to broadening the ways credit unions can create credit scores to expand access to credit.”

The recommendations are not out of left field, but are ideas that have already been proposed or debated, and they can be solved with legislation or directions for an agency, New said.

“You hear all this hype about how data is the new oil or data is crucial to a modern economy,” New said. “If policymakers want to get serious about enabling that, this is a 10-item checklist I think they can do to support that.”

New said he doesn’t expect members of congress to want to introduce legislation for all ten of the recommendations, but “there’s definitely something for everyone here.”

Reporter Meredith Somers discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

Wonky issues

The report’s first recommendation directs the establishment of a permanent open data policy for the federal government.

“With open data, agencies can better assess and share their data internally and with other agencies to improve decision-making across the government, the public can access huge amounts of government data quickly and easily, and the private sector can improve and build new products and services to bolster the economy,” the report stated.

The federal government in theory has an open data policy, New said, but the hope with the recommendation would be codification of requirements that establish the country as an open data leader.

One way to do this is by passing bills like the OPEN Government Data Act, which “explicitly defines publishing open data as the official responsibility of federal agencies,” the report stated.

Dovetailing with codifying an open data policy, the center recommended establishing an API for legislative data.

It’s a pretty wonky issue, New said, but also an important one, because Congress has struggled to publish legislative data in a usable and relevant way — at least for the average person.

Since 2004, the general public, media and even Hill personnel have used the private sector’s GovTrack to find out information about bills, along with an improved Congress.gov, New said.

“We need official sources for this information,” New said. “It’s just how the government should operate. Congress.gov has begun to publish some of this information in machine-readable formats. What we want to see though is an API that allows people to directly pull this kind of information and build applications with it.”

The challenge developers run into now is that if someone wants to build a transparency app that tracks legislative and regulatory developments, it’s hard to get that public information in real time.

“It’s a technical barrier here,” New said. “This information is published in PDF, it’s delayed. On a state and local level … we’ve heard reports of official government documents are like handwritten sticky notes, which is opposite of machine readable. We’ve seen the federal open data policy generally be a model for states and local governments. A legislative policy around open legislative data that includes an API I think would absolutely have a kind of trickle-down effect for local governments that want to take steps toward open legislative data.”

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • addressing the LGBT data gap.
  • requiring corporate data transparency.
  • incentivizing the adoption of electronic health records for mental-health providers.
  • fostering the use of alternative credit data.
  • ensuring consumers can access their utility data.

#1 on the list

New said there is a lot to be seen when it comes to administration support of data innovation.

While Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said during his confirmation that he supported the DATA Act, in terms of general open data policies established under the previous administration, New said the White House “has been pretty silent.”

“That’s raised some pretty serious red flags,” New said. “This is not to imply maliciousness or an anti-transparency agenda. It’s just what happens when you don’t have really strong leadership on the issue. There’s a reason it’s number one on this list.”

New said because President Donald Trump has not signaled whether the previous administration’s open data policy will also be his own, “a lot of agencies are not necessarily thinking they need to prioritize this in their budgeting. And it also throws the private sector for a loop that they don’t know if they should be investing in systems that can use open government data if it’s not going to be there in a year or two.”

New said he was encouraged that the open data policy memo is live on a non-archived White House page, and also “hoped the administration will take additional steps to signal its commitment to open data.”

And Hudson Hollister, founder of the Data Coalition, said he was optimistic about the data analytics environment created by the new administration.

Speaking at a June 6 Qlik Federal Summit in Washington, D.C., Hollister told the audience that if they want to get their agency’s management to care about data analytics, “you can tell them this White House and this Congress are behind those ideas.”

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