Open Data Basics for Federal Agencies

September 08, 2020 by Melissa Crowe

Open Data Basics for Federal Agencies

Photo credit: Sebastian Sikora/Flickr

A decade ago, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shared information with the medical community via an FTP server. Today, CMS’s approach has shifted to open data.

“Not only are they making their data available in interactive and downloadable formats, but they have APIs to allow the hospitals and providers and other actors in the health ecosystem to access the new information programmatically,” says Kevin Merritt, Chief Evangelist and Socrata Founder.

Merritt shared his perspective recently in a webinar about federal open data.

Federal agencies such as CMS have hundreds — if not thousands — of databases with valuable information that can be used for decision-making or to drive program outcomes. This data is the link between government missions and the technology needed to accomplish them.

That’s why the new Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 validates the need for open data. In a rejection of guesswork and gut instincts, the law, which includes the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, mandates that federal agencies make their non-sensitive government data open and machine-readable by default. Doing so will move agencies away from low-value activities “toward actions that will support decision makers: linking spending to program outputs, delivering on mission, better managing enterprise risks, and promoting civic engagement and transparency,” according to a White House memo.

The Act “creates a new paradigm by calling on agencies to significantly rethink how they currently plan and organize evidence-building, data management, and data access functions to ensure an integrated and direct connection to data and evidence needs,” the memo continues.

Beyond requiring open data, this law will reduce transaction costs for businesses, engage communities by increasing access to information, and lead to a standardized system of evidence-based policymaking.

“You could image that every industry — not just government — over the past 30 or 40 years has evolved from making decisions based on experience, based on gut instinct, based on what I’ll call ‘conventional wisdom,’ to making data-driven or evidence-based decisions,” Merritt says. “…Now they’re able to effectively look at this data, analyze the data, and incorporate those analyses in the decisions that they make.”

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