In the face of the Trump administration’s threatening posture toward evidence-based government and fundamental norms of transparency and democracy, we need to scrutinize the relationships between presidential administrations, open data, and the public record.
The following is a lightly edited version of correspondence dealing with protecting data, the Trump administration, and some thoughts about how US cities are responding to threats to federal data and its reuse.
Very little data has actually disappeared.
Recent reporting has dramatically overstated the amount of federal data that has been taken down in the Trump administration. A recent Washington Post story appears to be the source of confusion. Sunlight is tracking confirmed takedowns of data sets, which number in the single digits.
This is not to minimize the importance of any of this data, but to put questions about data access into a broader context. Possible causes of inaccurate generalizations about disappearing data include:
Data.gov had a technical error that caused its topline datasets published statistic to be wrong.
Lots of online resources are removed from one administration to another, and useful resources from Presidential and high level initiatives – like messaging websites, aggregate reports, and scorecards – disappear, and are then defended as though they are primary source statistical data. These resources sometimes do contain valuable data, but their removal, on their own, is different from a broad scale assault on federal data. Publishing narrative resources is an important representation of an administration’s priorities, but a good faith appraisal of data integrity between presidencies has to grapple with the distinction between political interference with data and political transitions.
We lack clear guidelines on how to measure an administration’s leadership on opening data. Open data portals are not rigorous measuring tools.
Communities that rely on it are ready to sound the alarm, which can lead to confirmation biases and misreporting.
The Trump administration is a huge threat to federal level data.
This threat takes a few different forms:
President Trump holds evidence, verification, and statistics in historically, shockingly low regard. Perhaps most egregiously he maintains a false, baseless claim that 3 million fraudulent votes were cast for his opponent. He has also shared unfounded criticism of unemployment statistics, political polling, crime reporting (to vilify immigrant and other vulnerable populations), and rejects broad scientific consensus on climate change.
The Trump administration has an unpredictable, volatile approach to policy generally, including the funding and operations of the federal government. This leaves federal data subject to various political threats, ranging from defunding or ending collection to manipulation.
Although the threat clearly extends to every other federal policy sphere, from healthcare to workplace safety, we see the three most vulnerable federal data initiatives as elections, environment, and the census:
Elections: President Trump’s bizarre conspiracies about fraudulent elections have led to a politically unbalanced commission on electoral reform. Trump’s election fraud rhetoric could disenfranchise millions of Americans, and destabilize our political system, if it empowers the extreme right’s reform agenda. This ground is well covered by election law experts, but, in a sense, elections are the most fundamental federal public data collection initiative, even if they’re administered by the states.
Environment: President Trump’s denial of the scientific basis for climate change has put the US in a more regressive posture towards climate reform than the Chinese government. American data collection and analysis are key to the world’s understanding of our climate crisis, and to our ability to act on that information.
Census: Perhaps most immediately relevant to US cities, the Trump administration poses a threat to the census, whose data creates our fundamental understanding of the country’s demographics, and allows resources to be allocated on a just, rational basis. Undercounting and inaccuracy are likely to disproportionately affect urban areas, made worse by the administration’s vilification of vulnerable populations — especially immigrants. The American Community Survey has been under similar political threat for years. The threats to the census, whose administration starts soon, are just beginning to be realized, as the Census director just resigned, adequate funding is in question, and the crisis of trust in federal governance deepens. Many groups are beginning to mobilize their constituencies around this issue, and explore tactics for both advocacy and data collection.
Cities have a new role.
Cities now are protecting the federal data they rely on, and representing functional, evidence-based models of governing.
The Federal Government Needs to Listen to Cities: Cities and their residents are increasingly key constituents in the struggle over federal data policy. The Trump administration’s hostility toward statistics and public discourse is already causing new alliances and tactics to form. This extends well beyond the Trump administration: national governments around the world face polarized electorates and a complex political realignment alongside urban revitalization; the role of cities in creating or using public data is evolving.
While cities are no strangers to the federal policy process, the emerging crises around public data pose new challenges, since the federal government has never adopted such a broad, anti-evidence posture before.
Cities are Leading the Way
Cities are now setting the leading examples for public data, from policy, culture, collection to engagement and reuse. Cities have long supplied a pipeline of staff for federal data-related positions. Today, they are increasingly providing best practices and learning from experimentation that federal governments should learn from and adopt.
Leading US Cities are doubling down on data in the face of federal failures.
Chicago posted archived copies of the EPA’s deleted climate change website.
Civic tech groups in like DataMade in Chicago are helping protect of residents’ data in the face of threats of deportation or other federal government abuse.
New York City is doubling down on transparency and open data: the press release announcing NYC’s revamped open data portal explicitly distanced NYC’s open data program from the Trump administration, and the city is considering adding a private right of action to its open data policy, which would significantly strengthen the public’s access to government data.
External actors are required to elevate cities’ perspectives. Cities’ primary job is to serve their residents, so no matter the need, research and coordination about cities’ work as a whole are best pursued in partnership with mayors and cities, but will generally not be led from within them. As the roles of cities evolve, new networks are helping cities coordinate and excel, especially as national governance crises deepen.