The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Joshua Tauberer, veteran civic hacker and founder of GovTrack, about his thoughts on federal open data, which agencies are doing it right, and how the open data movement has grown over the past few years.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Travis Korte: You recently co-wrote a guide for federal agencies that want to make their data open. Can you give a bit of background about the data licensing landscape as it stands?
Sometimes it may be appropriate for a contractor to retain intellectual property rights, but in many cases it may not be. NASA figured this out several years ago with their Open Source Initiative-approved open source license (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_Open_Source_Agreement). And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now following our advice on licensing. But my observation is that most federal agencies haven’t thought about the value of making these edge case datasets open. Our guidance is a reminder that public domain and everything the public domain stands for has always been the default for government data, really since the founding of the nation.
TK: Are there any federal agencies you can point to that have done a particularly good job of making their data open in recent years?
JT: There are many examples and, fortunately, I’m only familiar with a small handful. The National Archives has produced good data for the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations, the Department of Health & Human Services built a new website HealthData.gov (disclaimer: I am a contractor on that project), the Clerk of the House of Representatives has built a new website for data on the House’s upcoming schedule, and the Consumer Financial Production Bureau has been building many of their new tools on GitHub, among others. There are pockets of great work all over the government.
TK: You also run GovTrack, which started out as an early open data utility and has evolved into a popular government transparency resource. In your experience, how has government sentiment toward transparency changed in the last five years or so?
JT: Transparency is no longer a top-line goal in the Administration’s open data programs. That’s been replaced by economic development. Economic development is great, but there’s a moral imperative for our government to inform us about its actions and it’s unfortunate that this aspect of open data has been sidelined.
TK: I suspect that a lot of GovTrack visitors just use the site for legislative tracking, but you’ve built in a number of cool additional features over the years. What are some of your favorite less obvious things you can do on GovTrack?
JT: Here are two of my favorites. From any bill you can search for related bills through a comparison of the full text of bills. Often there are multiple bills that are either identical or on the very same subject that are hard to identify by other means. You can also see the changes to the text of bills as they move through the legislative process, which helps spot small one-word changes like dollar amounts in huge bills, for instance.
TK: As a veteran civic technologist, you witnessed open data move from a relatively niche issue to a well-known national one with considerable popular support. In your view, was there an inflection point in technology or an event that spurred a critical mass of people in the open data community?
JT: No, it’s been gradual. But the events that have brought previously unconnected communities together have been crucial. Sunlight Foundation’s annual Transparency Camp is definitely one of the crucial events in the federal-government-transparency community (the 7th TCamp will be this year), and looking globally the Open Knowledge Foundation’s support for regional off-shoots has been a driving force. Code for America has done something similar, that is, promoting the development of regional communities, for U.S. cities.