Government Data and the Invisible Hand (Robinson et al., 2009)

In this 2009 article, Robinson et al. discuss the downfalls of the United States federal government in providing reusable data to citizens and the role that they envision for private parties in providing this data. They suggest downscaling government focus on websites and portals to provide data to provide a bare-bones feed that third parties could access and reformat data to give back to the citizen end-user.

I don’t disagree with the issues that Robinson et al. bring up (all government data should be publicly and easily available, governments are slow to update and adapt because bureaucracy gets in the way), but I think that this is a fundamentally bad take on the solution. I don’t think that inserting private entities into the process is a good idea; government data should be provided directly to citizens by the government itself. I can’t say I know the state of data accessibility in the pre-Obama United States and I’m sure that there was a huge gap for the government to bridge, but their proposal really missed the mark for me. The people should not rely on private parties to communicate with their government, and vice versa.

On the topic of reliance on private parties, the authors also draw what I see as a huge false equivalency in saying “the government already relies heavily on private parties for facilitating aspects of core civic activities – travelling to Washington, calling one’s representatives on the phone, or even going to the library to retrieve a paper public record” (174). All these referenced industries are heavily regulated by federal law and oversight, and often subsidized by federal funds. They are all subject to the same kind of bureaucracy that the authors decry in the government’s provisioning of data.

My main two issues with creating this new role for private data providers are security and standardization. The authors touched on security concerned by saying they expect there to be at least one trustworthy private source for everyone, which is in my opinion not a solution. I also think that standardization of data (at least, whatever can be standardized, like metadata) is important. It is unfortunate that some agencies were required to shut down their more advanced systems in favour of a single, standard system, but I think that this is a failure in a single piece of legislation, not in the government’s handling of data.

The problem was identified successfully, but not the solution. I’m not against third-parties processing and aggregating public data into more intuitive/interactive/visually pleasing/organized formats, but I think that that should happen parallel to the government providing its own data and documents in raw/aggregate formats and formats that are already easy to use and access. Private entities should not be the primary point-of-access for public data. Providing data to its citizens is not where the United States government should be making cuts and penny-pinching.

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