Door closes on Obama administration’s open data efforts

By Tracie Mauriello / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON — If you wanted to know who visited the White House, how much the president’s secretary is paid, or which state has the most federally funded teaching positions, the information was just a few clicks away. With a bit more technical knowledge, you could explore public data sets to analyze the president’s budget, or look for trends in government spending.

No more.

Dozens of data sets disappeared last week from open.whitehouse.gov, a website the Obama administration created to promote government transparency.

Visitors to the website now find a message saying “check back soon for new data.” But it isn’t clear when any new data will be posted, and government watchdogs aren’t confident that it will ever happen.

“We are working to open up the new sites,” White House press aide Helen Ferre emailed in response to questions about the data. She did not respond to follow-up questions about what the content of the “new sites” will be, whether it will include the visitor logs, when it will be uploaded, or why the Obama administration data was removed.

“But are they ever going to do it? We don’t know,” said Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation.

The data the Obama administration provided hasn’t been deleted. Rather it’s been preserved by the National Archives in accordance with a law that prohibits federal data from being destroyed. Find it at open.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.

That’s helpful, but far from ideal, government watchdogs say.

The data is no longer in a user-friendly format. Users have to have the technical knowledge to unpack zipfiles and must have software that can handle large files with millions of rows of data.

The Obama White House began posting government data in 2009 to provide structured data that researchers could use to learn about how government operates. At the time, aides said they hoped to create a precedent for future administrations.

They approached it from the default position that government data belongs to the public, and it should be easily accessible and machine-readable. They also tried to put the data in formats that would easily allow software developers and researchers to use and analyze.

The website they created is still up, providing the architecture for transparency, but the Trump digital communications team hasn’t updated it.

“We can’t say that (removing the data) was malevolent necessarily, but we can say that it was not competent,” and that someone took an affirmative action to remove the data, Howard said. The removal occurred sometime after Feb. 8 and without any public notice.

“People are going there to find out what’s happening, and they’re not telling them were to find the old data or when they’re uploading new data,” Howard said.

And, he said, they’re doing it while Trump is telling people to trust the White House and not “dishonest” media.

“If you’re saying the media can’t be trusted and ‘Believe us,’ then tell us what you’re doing. You can’t have it both ways. … You can’t say don’t trust them but we’re not going to tell you what’s happened,” Howard said. “If we believe that an informed public is critical to a functioning democracy, then connecting data to people who are interested in knowing how their government is working or not working is paramount.”

Still, he said, it’s not unreasonable for websites to change to reflect the priorities of the current president. The administration has that discretion, but it’s disconcerting that there have been no indications that transparency is a priority, Howard said.

It’s disturbing, said Sean Moulton, program manager for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

“If you’re not posting this material, at least make it clearer when you’re going to do it and when. Having an upfront discussion and clear plan would set a lot of minds at ease,” Moulton said.

D.J. Patil, the Obama administration’s chief data scientist, who had been following the president’s directive to open up even more data sets across the federal government, is worried that the Trump administration will take steps backward that would harm research and innovation along with government transparency.

Data sharing has allowed scientists outside the government to make new discoveries in fields as diverse as opioid abuse, weather prediction and traffic fatalities.

“The complexities the country faces can’t be solved by one person. Solutions are found by bringing the full force of the United States of America to the problem,” Patil said. “The reason we open up scientific data is because we don’t expect to find all the answers ourselves. We have a nation of really smart people.”

Watchdog groups are more concerned about being able to use data to hold government accountable.

White House visitor logs, for example, became an important resource for understanding the effects of influence and lobbying.

“It helped people understand more about who’s talking to whom,” Moulton said. “When the White House comes out with a policy you want to know where the idea came from. Who did they speak to?”

The logs were never perfect. The information in them was collected as part of Secret Service security protocol and was never meant to be a log of meetings. The logs provide only names, dates and times of visits, so it isn’t possible to know what was discussed or even which of the country’s 46,901 John Smiths visited.

Still, government watchdogs have been able to use the logs to piece together the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the creation of the Affordable Care Act. Reporters have used it to write about Google’s expansive access to the White House as it worked to partner on government projects, and to reveal that former President Barack Obama had more meetings with actor George Clooney than with the administration’s drug czar.

Trump takes a lot of his meetings at Trump Tower in New York City and at Mar-a -Lago in Florida, where he’s spent nearly every weekend since taking office.

“If that’s the case, why should the same standards of disclosure apply?” Howard asks. “He’s created a machine for influence that is unprecedented in modern American history. People can pay to stay at the hotels, they can play at his golf clubs, and they can pay to sway at his private club.”

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