Basics of Open Data Policy and Federal Awards

Basics of Open Data Policy and Federal Awards

Open Data is a U.S. initiative brought about through an Executive OrderMaking Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information. The goal is to collect and organize data gathered by Executive Agencies through the normal course of business, which is then placed into a comprehensive information system that allows data to be managed as an asset. The policy also provides end users and the public free access.

Project Open Data is facilitated through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). It is a managed community open source guidance document intended for continuous improvement. Thus, by the nature of the open source document, it is required to visit the site for the most current information.

Type of Data Collected

Public disclosure of data is determined based on whether doing so will promote economic growth and support “entrepreneurship, innovation, accountability, scientific discovery, and other efforts that tangibly improve the lives of Americans.”[1] The type of data publicly available will vary by agency. Guidance can be found at the Open Data Implementation Guide.

One example is the Department of Transportation (DOT) partnership with other agencies to launch Safety – Information such as details of the Safety Measurement System used by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is available to the public. This data can be accessed by businesses. One case is the following:

“… a windshield repair company looking to grow its business is mining FMCSA information about safety violations to identify new customers. DOT and the public realize a benefit because the commercial vehicle operator customer is using a safer vehicle and operating in compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.”


Per the Executive Order, Open Data promotes better access and interoperability through a default policy of “open and machine readable” requirements for the collection and dissemination of data. In the Project Open Data Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, the OMB outlines certain criteria implemented into programs to help enable the new default policies. For example:

  • Systems should be “platform independent,” meaning data does not require specific programs to open it. In the referenced memorandum, OMB emphasized the need to avoid proprietary platforms because they may restrict access. Non-proprietary platforms are preferred, such as JSON, XML and CSV.
  • System data must be “machine readable,” indicating that the format must be accessible by a computer browser without special programming.
  • The principles applied in developing open data need to be “public, accessible, described, reusable, complete, timely, and managed post-release.”

Public Listing of Documents

As pointed out in Applying the Open Data Policy to Federal Awards, each agency is required to create a list of metatags for data rated for public, restricted and non-public assets that will be listed on OMB’s Enterprise Data Inventory (EDI). The public data listing is one subset of this inventory, which is a category list, not the database itself.

Similar to a card catalog in a library, the listing has information as to where to access the data, which includes:

  • Title
  • Description
  • Points of contact
  • Other pertinent information needed to locate the data

Limitations on Data Collection

Certain information is exempt from being accessible by the public. Rationale includes:

  • Privilege
  • Law enforcement
  • National security
  • Personal information
  • Information and disclosures prohibited by law
  • Detailed vending pricing
  • Information subject to the Trade Secrets Act regarding proprietary company information

Though not published, this data is required to be inventoried in EDI’s non-public data assets at OMB.

Who Controls the Data?

While program office personnel, legal counsel and others may be involved in reviewing the limitations of data sets, each agency’s chief information officer (CIO) is ultimately responsible for providing information to OMB that is to be reported in the EDI. They must also provide the public data listing on the agency website.

OMB and OSTP manage Project Open Data, providing coordination between agencies to strive for consistency.

How Does Project Open Data Impact Government Contracts?

Open Data policies do not impact pre-existing contracts and no modifications are required.

On new contracts, the terms of the contract and the scope of the work indicated will determine what deliverable data must be provided. If data is included in the deliverables, then it must be delivered (or an export of the data must be available) in machine readable format. The agency has the discretion to determine whether they will translate the data or require the contractor to provide the appropriate format.

For contracts addressing systems that process data, requirements should:

“provide for a life-cycle view of effective and efficient information management by requiring that information is collected in a way that supports downstream processing, and that systems are built to support interoperability and information accessibility, including regular access or exporting of the data as a standard requirement of such systems. Addressing these considerations early in the acquisition process will protect against the costly retrofitting that is often involved in retrieving data from legacy platform-dependent systems.”

Helpful Tools and Resources

Project Open Data offers opportunities for contractors and the public by promoting better access to information. In addition to hands-on support and collaborative efforts, Project Open Data also provides easy-to-use tools and resources to help contractors and agency representatives translate data into an independent platform.