Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. -- Martin Luther King Jr.
Imagine driving car without a dashboard. Not only would you break the speed limit and soon run out of gas, but in a new car, you’d lose your engine health readouts, rear-cam view, and other telemetry.
I’ve always seen open data as the telemetry we need to drive democracy. Sure, open U.S. federal government data tends to be widely dispersed, difficult for ordinary people to digest, and often ignored by the news media. But for years vast quantities of open data about everything from agriculture to mining to education to energy have been available for anyone to peruse or download from government websites.
What sort of data are we talking about? For starters, check out the Open Data 500, an NYU project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which lists hundreds of federal government data sources -- and 500 private companies that depend on them.
Open data has always faced challenges: institutional inertia, attempts to conceal incompetence, and so on. The Obama administration gave open data a major boost with Data.gov (a catalog of open federal government data) and other initiatives, including The Opportunity Project (a project to jumpstart open data apps) announced last March. But now, as we enter the Trump era, open data may face its ultimate test.
Last week I spoke with Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan transparency organization. He was reluctant to make predictions about what the Trump administration would or would not do. But citing Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns and full medical records, Howard stated the obvious:
This is one reason why, as the Washington Post reported, to preserve records of climate change “scientists have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference.” A guerilla archiving event hosted last month by the University of Toronto focused on preserving climate change information by copying "the federal online pages and data that are in danger of disappearing during the Trump administration."
Kin Lane, a self-styled API evangelist and ex-Presidential Innovation Fellow has done a ton of pro bono API work on government data. He told me that many different groups are currently engaged in backup efforts.