Greater respect for federal data services might be one of the good things to come from the government shutdown.
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One of the potential benefits of the government's partial shutdown is a new-found appreciation for many of the federally provided services Americans take for granted.
Long-planned trips to national parks have had to be abandoned. Life-saving medical treatments offered by the National Institutes of Health have been postponed, leaving patients in limbo. Meatpacking plants have gone uninspected. National Transportation Safety Board officials are unable to investigate a Washington Metro rail accident that killed a worker and left two injured this week because of the federal furloughs.
The shutdown is also affecting scores of businesses that have come to depend on routine access to government data and data services. Many government services, such as weather data from the National Weather Service and satellite network feeds that provide GPS services are still being maintained and continue to be available. But some important government data services have been suspended.
Among them are reports from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which provides GDP data (among many other important indicators) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides unemployment and other data. No new data will be issued during the shutdown, according to a source familiar with those operations.
Another data service that has been suspended is Data.gov, a repository of government data sets and APIs that a growing number of businesses and entrepreneurs are using to develop new products and services for the public. Obama administration officials, including federal CTO Todd Park, are fond of pointing out how government weather data has spawned entire industries around weather services and mobile applications.
In another example of government data being put to good public use, iTriage takes freely available government medical data and converts it into a valuable consumer health diagnostic and reference app. The company that developed the app, iTriage LLC, was acquired by Aetna in 2011 and now has 90 employees and more than 600 hospital partners.
But after the government partially shut down last week, Data.gov, which is managed by the General Services Administration, went dark along with hundreds of other federal websites. As a result, the assumption that the data behind iTriage and other apps and services will always be available was suddenly thrown into doubt.
"When the government shuts down and takes most of its data with it, the public needs to have a backup plan," says Eric Mill, a developer, writing in a blog published by the Sunlight Foundation. "It's not 1995 anymore -- the government lives on the Internet, and so do we."
Mill is right in arguing that the public deserves advance notice about which APIs will not be maintained during a shutdown. But he also maintains, "The only reliable way to preserve data online is to make copies -- and the more copies, the better!" The problem with copies is that backups quickly become out of date.
A better approach would be for the Obama administration to take its open data policy a step further. The current policy, released in May, directs agencies to manage government information as a national asset, making it machine readable and available to the public.
What this shutdown shows is that government data ought to also be considered an essential service. So that when the government shuts down next time, essential data services don't shut down with it.
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