An analysis finds that federal programs have lost ground, but other levels of government are making strides.
The Open Data Barometer map of counties based on their open data efforts. (World Wide Web Foundation)
In a survey of open data efforts, the World Wide Web Foundation has ranked the U.S. fourth worldwide, just behind the United Kingdom in first, Canada in second, and France in third.
The rankings were released last month as part of the foundation’s annual Open Data Barometer (ODB), an interactive report that evaluates nations based on the effects of open data, the number of data sets available and the legal and regulatory systems that enable data transparency.
Dropping two slots since last year, the U.S. lost ground to its competitors because it appeared that open data had less influence on the economic and political sectors. The U.S. also fell short on the quality and quantity of data for land ownership, budgets and business registration information. But a strong transparency movement at the state and local levels is allowing the U.S. to remain near the top.
Out of 115 countries evaluated, the U.S. earned a score of 82 out of 100, and cities and states can take credit as the key influencers. Long before the U.S. had data.gov, the federal government's open data portal, cities and states were experimenting with open data. California was one of these early adopters, starting with a basic directory of PDF files and links to data sets that has since evolved into a portal launched last September that consolidates state agency data into an accessible, downloadable format. Substantial open data portals from New York and Illinois also position those states as transparency leaders.
The foundation’s analysis indicates there is still much work to do. Globally, only 10 percent of government data is published as open data, and of the data published, the depth is often insufficient to deliver meaningful insights. The data can be too vague, lack context, be outdated or stay locked away in inaccessible formats, the foundation says.
“The findings from the fourth edition of the Open Data Barometer show that while some governments are advancing towards these aims, open data remains the exception, not the rule,” the report states. “In most cases, the right policies are not in place, nor is the breadth and quality of the data sets released sufficient.”
The result is a dearth of government accountability, the foundation claims. The U.S. joins 90 percent of the nations evaluated that do not publish budget data in an open format. This definition of open signifies that the data is online, readable by most devices, free to reuse without copyright infringement and downloadable in bulk. The federal government is now just starting to implement the DATA Act, which is intended to meet those goals.
While the U.S. budget reports on spending and finance exist, these are often buried between different agencies, trapped in PDF documents, and are either mired in financial minutia or so broadly worded that residents can’t drill into specifics. The foundation said that only 12 nations published their budgets “as truly open data.”
Another frustrating fact for potential data users, the foundation says, is that less a third, 31 percent, published their open data without basic metadata or documentation to understand it.
“Procedures, timelines, and responsibilities are frequently unclear among government institutions tasked with this work. This makes the overall open data management and publication approach weak and prone to multiple errors,” the report states.
To see significant gains in open data publication, the recommendations for governments were to find strong political support from leadership, and when there are years when this is wanting, to ensure longevity for open data programs by decentralizing them throughout agencies. This is a tactic that President Barack Obama employed with the digital service groups 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) when he released them from White House management and embedded them in the General Services Administration, an agency that handles federal procurement and property. 18F and USDS have led modernization and innovation projects, using open data for new apps and platforms.
The Trump administration has yet to state a formal position on open data, but has not created administrative roadblocks to implementation of the DATA Act. President Trump has yet to appoint a White House chief information officer or chief technology officer, to provide federal leadership in open data. This absence of federal guidance has put new weight on cities and states to act on open data where federal direction is still unclear.
As part of its recommendations, the foundation advised countries to adopt its Open Data Charter, that incorporates principles like open data by default, a practice where new public government data is automatically made open. The charter also includes best practices like timely updates, and simple user experiences that make data digestible to government outsiders.