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Data.gov shutdown shows limits of open data

The Data.gov shutdown shows that, as open data can be turned off, data professionals may need to consider alternative sources for the kinds of data the government offers.

During this decade's big data boom, data has been called the new oil, likened to electricity and generally boosted as something essential for organizational success. But what happens if the oil or electricity is shut off?

That is what users of government data may be wondering as they experience the Data.gov shutdown. It's a result of the larger partial government shutdown that began in December 2018 and proceeded to surpass any previous shutdown in length.

Data.gov, an Open Government initiative that began during the Obama administration, is on hold for now. As of last week, site visitors were greeted with a message: "Due to a lapse in government funding, all Data.gov websites will be unavailable until further notice."

Visitors were invited to go to the USA.gov site, where, for a time, they were greeted with the image of a triangle and red exclamation point that indicated USA.gov was available, but not being updated due to the lapse in government funding. A reporter's phone call to USA.gov confirmed that the Data.gov site was inaccessible due to the government shutdown.

The Data.gov shutdown is problematic for any applications that have relied on feeds based on the site. The underlying databases likely did not go away, but Data.gov as a pointer to and aggregator of government databases -- one that acts as a data virtualization platform -- is suspended. The site had already experienced some problems as it grew and sought to curate data from various government agencies.

Today, more data problems are emerging beyond Data.gov, as reports and records are redacted or taken offline and as scientists search for once-available climate data. Economists and others are worried about delays in release of economic data, as well.  

Corporations looking to work more with data also should take notice, according to Gartner analyst Doug Laney. If they can, they should look for alternative sources, he said.

"With government data, companies need to be concerned," Laney said. "You have to think about data as an asset, like any other resource you are pursuing. Boeing or Lockheed, for example, must have multiple suppliers in case something happens to any one of them."

Roots of Data.gov

During the Obama administration, high aspirations accompanied efforts to use technology to help the public participate in government, according to Alex Howard, a Washington, D.C.-based open government advocate, writer and blogger at public interest advocacy site E-PluribusUnum.org.

"There are huge numbers of places where available government data has transformative aspects -- for weather, global positioning systems, and academics and for democracy generally," Howard said.

Over time, less data has been available through Data.gov, he indicated, largely due to some "pauses in data harvesting." But Data.gov data was not deleted and never resided on the site in the first place, Howard noted.

"People thought it would be hosting data. Now, people are getting their heads around the fact that the data to which Data.gov pointed may still be accessible in other ways," he said.

Data.gov 'at sea'

Rick Lauderdale, a former innovation architect at the Department of Energy, now retired, said the government's interest in maintaining and developing the site had waned before the Data.gov shutdown.

"It started out with the best of intentions. Now, Data.gov is more or less at sea," said Lauderdale, who helped in efforts to use Data.gov at the State Department.

"The Data.gov support structure could have been better. It needed more follow-through. In a way, no one was talking about it," he said.

In part, that was due to inherent challenges some organizations face when dealing with data, he said. It takes resources -- which the Data.gov effort may have been short on -- to find databases in departments, reformat the data so it is easy to use and stage it for consumption.

"It takes time and money to really become better at using data," Lauderdale said.

Lauderdale, who worked with aeronautical and other maintenance data during more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy, said policies, procedures and follow-up are needed to support data efforts.

"Data.gov needs tiger teams capable of helping agencies with data," he said. "That has not been implemented."

Screen capture of USA.gov
Access to Data.gov is on hold during the partial U.S. government shutdown. Site visitors are led to USA.gov for further information.

Data dissemination disruption

It takes time and money to really become better at using data.
Rick Lauderdalea former innovation architect at the Department of Energy

When there is any disruption in service involving data, as with the Data.gov shutdown, problems arise related to the reliability and stability of those services, said Rob Dolan, market segment director at Tableau Software, a data visualization and business intelligence software vendor based in Seattle.

The rules governing how open data sets are refreshed and pushed out vary by federal agency, Dolan said in an email message, with roles responsible for data dissemination defined as essential for some and nonessential for others.

"For stakeholders who rely on this open data for their own activities, having a disruption in the flow of that data could have a serious impact on how they deliver their products and services to citizens and to consumers," he said.

Consider multiple sources

Data is clearly becoming more and more important as an asset, Dolan noted. He said rules governing data dissemination, as well as rules for data handling during government shutdowns, should be standardized across the federal government.

Although he said he doesn't subscribe to the oil analogy for data, Laney said data is a "nondepleting asset."

Laney, who authored Infonomics: How to Monetize, Manage, and Measure Information as an Asset for Competitive Advantage, recommended setting up procurement functions for data, as with any other supplies or resources. He advised data managers and C-suite executives to consider multiple backup suppliers for data in the future, in anticipation of outages such as the Data.gov shutdown.

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