Researchers to get easier access to US government data

Scientific advances expected after new US law requires federal statistics and documents to be published in uniform and open formats

January 19, 2019
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Opening doors: ‘The lowering of barriers to working with data from multiple sources within the government will allow researchers to approach problems in new ways’

In a boon for researchers, the US government has ordered that all federal data subject to public disclosure be made freely available in standardised machine-readable and open formats.

Groups of academics in the social sciences and beyond said that the newly enacted law should bring major advances in their ability to make data-driven and interdisciplinary discoveries.

It is hoped that it could lead to an array of cross-field insights in areas such as consumer and corporate finance, population statistics, healthcare, agriculture and more.

“This really broadens the playing field – to everything,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

The far wider and easier availability of federal data should be especially useful to academic social scientists who help assess the effectiveness of government, said Julia Milton, a spokeswoman for the Consortium of Social Science Associations.

“The lowering of barriers to working with data from multiple sources within the government will allow researchers to approach problems in new ways,” said Ms Milton, whose coalition represents dozens of universities and social sciences groups.

Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2013 that set out much of what the Open Government Data Act now definitively requires. But the process of adherence and data conversion takes time, and enshrining the concept in law is “a really important foundational step” that will make meaningful data-sharing a governmental norm, Ms Joseph said.

Examples of projects that could be helped by the law include studies exploring how levels of lead in the blood are affected by housing quality, and studies that seek connections between government food assistance programmes and health outcomes.

Just the comprehensive inventory of all available government data that will be created under the law will, by itself, be a huge boost to academic research, said Nicholas Hart, director of the Evidence Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who played a leading role in shaping the bill.

“Knowledge about what data exist will help researchers know whether they should seek access to data in the first place to address research questions,” said Dr Hart, who also serves as an adjunct professor in programme evaluation at George Washington University.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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