In the 100 days since President Trump took office, concerned Americans have downloaded over 2 million government datasets. Their goal? To back up information they believe is in danger of going dark: climate science research, discriminatory housing reports, gun violence statistics. But public data preservation isn’t just a job for citizens working in university libraries and on digital archiving Githubs. Now, Washington is getting in on the action.
On Thursday, Senators Gary Peters and Cory Gardner introduced a bipartisan bill that would make it much, much harder for any administration to disappear public data. If passed, the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017 would affect the availability of everything from census numbers to sea level rise.
While Congress has been working toward an open government data platform since the early 2000s, the new bill is a clear reaction to the new administration and its attitude toward transparency. Earlier this month Trump announced that he wouldn’t be voluntarily providing White House visitor logs, invoking the Presidential Records Act to conceal the comings and goings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for five years after his last term ends. And last week the Justice Department mounted a legal defense of the US Agriculture Department’s decision to yank a massive set of records detailing animal abuse enforcement.
Those are clear signals that the executive branch isn’t interested in continuing lawmakers’ commitment to public data access. Last December, the Senate passed a bill to make it easier for a machine to read and extract all government data publicly available on the internet. (The Open Government Data Act is now waiting on a House vote this session.) The Preserving Government Data Act introduced on Thursday lays the next brick—ensuring that once a government data set is published online, it can’t be taken down. Well, not easily anyway.