America needs a .gov backup plan

Photo: White House/Pete Souza
Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The federal government is closed indefinitely as are many of its websites, including data.gov, a foundation of U.S. entrepreneurial innovation and public information.

From the memo released by the White House referencing .gov agency action:

If an agency’s website is shut down, users should be directed to a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency’s website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that notifies the public of the following: (a) information on the website may not be up to date, (b) transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and (c) the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Regardless of what’s happening between the opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, why is America in this situation, and what can we do to ensure it never happens again?

In the case of Data.gov, Sunlight Foundation makes a great case that government APIs aren’t a backup plan and offers its own suggestions:

  • Publish downloadable bulk data before or concurrently with building an API.
  • Explicitly encourage reuse and republishing of their data. (Considering public reuse of data a risk to the public is not recommended.)
  • Document what data will remain during a shutdown, and keep this up all the time. Don’t wait until the day before (or of) a shutdown.
  • Link to alternative sources for their data. Keep these links up during a shutdown.

Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd answers part of the issue in a recent post, where he advocates a community-based approach to hosting public data:

The City of Philadelphia has designated the community-built Open Data Philly website as it’s official data directory for open data – we’re the only big city in the country (maybe the only city period) that does not unilaterally control the data portal where city departments publish their data.

We see informal, reactive examples of Philadelphia’s strategy happening via organizations like Code for America, who has mirrored Census Bureau TIGER shapefile data.

These suggestions and options are a great first step, but what about the entire .gov ecosystem?

There is an enormous amount of information Americans can’t access that isn’t structured data, most noticeably in the form of nasa.gov, the website that hosts information about our country’s space operations.

When a hurricane is making its way to destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a warning to potentially impacted areas to take appropriate safety measures. Areas seriously hit receive immediate federal funding to ensure the affected communities are stabilized in a timely manner.

What federal agency is responsible for preserving our data economy and ensuring public information is accessible during a national emergency, in this case a government shutdown?

What contingency plan is in place to ensure our .gov ecosystem is available when a political storm hits?

Here’s my 2-point .gov backup plan:

  • Develop all web operations in non-licensed, open source software. This enables others to re-purpose this technology in an efficient manner free from financial and legal restrictions.
  • In the event of a potential shutdown, release all code and content to the public through platforms such as GitHub (this should be done regularly anyways).

This simple plans ensures entrepreneurial ventures and civic communities can rally to stand up these operations in the event of an emergency.

The Federal Chief Information Officers Council is tasked with maintaining the integrity of America’s IT infrastructure. They’ve done a great job of facilitating plans for mobility, security and even a more digitally-attuned government, but it’s time to set in place a national .gov backup plan.

Whether it’s the CIO Council, FEMA, General Services Administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy or all of the above, when our government is open for business again, let’s get the appropriate leadership together and move forward on a stronger contingency plan that can weather the next political hurricane.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

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