In his first annual message on January 8 1790, George Washington stated that ‘Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.’ This has never been more true than today, where facts and knowledge are seen as the central elements of everything we do. We know that company leaders making decisions based on gut feeling alone is a recipe for disaster, it allows us to hold our governments to account, and it allows us to make informed decisions about almost everything we do in our day.
One of the ways this data was made accessible under the Obama administration was through the Open Data Initiative, a policy implemented in May 2013 that ‘made open and machine-readable data the new default for government information.’ What this essentially meant was that all government data, from job creation through to crop output, was in a machine readable format, making it simple to analyze by anybody who wanted to. This represented a huge leap forward for government transparency as it meant that people weren’t dependent on government analysis, instead they could access the raw data at any time and if they had the skills and software, process it themselves.
At present the future of this initiative is unknown. In fact, the future of almost every digital and data led office over the past 8 years has been left in limbo, we don’t know if the CTO position created by Obama still exists or the Chief Data Scientist position held by DJ Patil will be continued or scrapped. This is a potentially dangerous precedent given the actions of the new administration over the weekend.
It started with an NBC interview with Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President of the United States, and a press briefing from Sean Spicer, White House Communications Director. Pictorial evidence showed that the number of attendees at the inauguration was considerably smaller than in 2009, but Sean Spicer lambasted the press for reporting wrongly on the crowd size and ‘that was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.’ He claimed that public transport figures showed that 420,000 had used the Metro system - although it is unclear where these figures came from - and that 317,000 had used it for Obama in 2013. The true figures from DC Metro show that there were 570,000 trips across the entire day for Trump’s inauguration compared to 1.1 million in 2009, with the key riding time (before 11am) showing Trump’s inauguration with 193,000 journeys compared to 513,000 for Obama in 2009.
It was clear from both public transport figures and photographic evidence that Spicer had, at best, been given the wrong data, and at worst, lied to the World’s press at his first briefing. Criticism of his move transcended traditional partisan news sources, with even Fox News, who have been very positive towards the new administration claiming, ‘there is little question that Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew a much bigger in-person crowd than Trump’s ceremonies on Friday – based on aerial photography, Metro ridership statistics, and other factors.’ The morning after the storm had begun, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, was interviewed by Chuck Todd and after questioning why Sean Spicer was giving falsehoods to the press responded with ‘Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.’
For those who support open data and transparency in government this incident combined with the lack of clarification on open data initiatives is worrying. We rely on figures released by the government to make decisions every day, from which stocks to invest in through to whether we should grow a company or consolidate it, so the country needs to trust what’s being said. Through open data we can double check almost everything claimed, which puts a check on government and allows for citizens and companies to verify what they’ve been told. We know that press briefings are now potentially unreliable after the first clearly showed that the new administration will happily spread falsehoods, and without an open data policy in place, we have no quick way to check what’s being said. There are still Freedom of Information requests, but these often take months to come through, so by the time the information arrives, it is out of date.
It means that the broader and regional open data initiatives need to be bolstered and supported to try and reinforce an open data culture as much as possible. The Whitehouse reports on national trends that have been gathered, so theoretically this can be achieved relatively easily. Crime figures are a prime example of this - they are first collected at individual stations, then combined to give district statistics, which are then combined to make county statistics, then state statistics, then national statistics. Putting pressure on these lower levels to release their data at state or district level allows companies and individuals to collate this together to get broadly accurate data, even without direct national government support. The same can be done for almost every piece of local level data collected, including weather, unemployment, and healthcare.
It may paint a bleak picture of the future of open data in the US, but there are several areas which are likely to continue with their already impressive approach. We have seen in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and even Washington DC itself, that at least at a municipal level, there is a considerable amount of good work being done that is likely to increase in the future.
The good work done over the past 4 years has also meant that we have a huge amount of data that we can compare and contrast with, especially over the first 2 or 3 years of this administration. It allows us to use this data to create models that can be used in predictive modelling to give rough predictable deviations that could potentially be called out. For instance, if the model suggests that in current market conditions the country is likely to see significant job losses, but the figures given say they are significantly higher, it should be ringing alarm bells and potentially triggering investigations at lower levels of government from open data advocates.
We are currently at the very start of Donald Trump’s Whitehouse, so it may turn out that these open data fears are unfounded, but it is not only the open data community who is worried about data in the new administration. Climate scientists have already copied all data on climate change and distributed it around the world to keep it safe due to fears over the climate change deniers who make up his cabinet, including Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Rick Perry, Rex Tillerson, and Ben Carson. In an interview with the Washington Post, Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California, said he believed that, ’Something that seemed a little paranoid to me before all of a sudden seems potentially realistic, or at least something you’d want to hedge against.’
The next four years may end up being a struggle for advocates of open data, but in truth the community surrounding it has been around for considerably longer than the 4 years that it’s had direct government support. It may become more difficult if the administration becomes actively hostile to the concept, but for the moment at least, despite a lack of support, there is little that can be done to stop it.