Open data when government is closed

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The lapse in data services from shuttered government offices can have downstream effects beyond just static agency websites.

The partial government shutdown has restricted open data services from agencies affected by the budget impasse. Given businesses' widespread reliance on government data for their applications and services, the lapse can have downstream effects beyond just static agency websites.

Statistical agencies at the Department of Commerce, for instance — including the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Economic Development Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau— are not updating much of the data behind their application programming interfaces during the shutdown.

"There's data always being captured and in many cases is available, former Commerce CIO Steve Cooper said, noting that NOAA satellite data collection isn't paused. But it's different for survey data produced and disseminated by federal workers. "That activity, if there are no people available to do that activity, doesn't occur until people come back, and as a result there's no update to newly captured data," Cooper said. Users of government data services might not realize the data they're getting "may be two or three weeks old," he added.

Under current policy, the only IT systems that remain in operation are those that protect life or property or are essential to the functioning of another system that is funded by a non-discretionary source. Employees who update the government's open datasets and application programming interfaces  are not included.

"The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse" in appropriations, according to the Office of Management and Budget's guidance.

Open government advocates have raised concerns about the fate of this federal data and of the APIs built on it when agencies are closed, while  organizations that leverage large quantities of government information often opt to download data in bulk before a shutdown.

"For this very reason, we don't use the Census' API for our data updates," said Bernie Langer, senior data analyst and content marketing lead at PolicyMap. "We download flat files of all the Census data we use and store it on our systems. This way, we're unaffected by any outages that might come up due to a shutdown or anything else."

Langer said he expects some updates will be delayed by the shutdown.

Alex Howard, open government advocate and civic tech journalist, said the disruption to these updates  could damage trust in both government and its data.

"If an office is shut down, that's one thing; if a website is shut down, that's another," he said. "If an API doesn't work anymore, that has a cascading effect.… There's a huge risk to public trust in services."

Christian Hoehner, senior director of policy for the Data Coalition, said the shutdown could impact the broader government move to open data, raising concerns "that a prolonged shutdown will affect the timeliness, completeness, usability and accuracy of government data."

This article was first posted on FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

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