Two weeks ago, if you’d gone to https://open.whitehouse.gov, you would have found a plethora of governmental information, in bulk, free for the taking. There was “White House Visitor Record Requests,” “President Obama’s 2017 Budget,” and information on White House office employee salaries. The site encouraged developers to use the information in their apps and websites. “President Obama is committed to a more transparent federal government that offers better digital services to the American people,” the site said.
As of February 14 (although it may have been before then), the page has been scrubbed of all information that had been available during President Obama’s administration, and now links to a data catalog that boasts zero results. The “Developers” page now tells you “Page not found.”
This sudden change might sound familiar. A similar scrubbing took place at noon on January 20, when Donald Trump was officially sworn in as president. The design of whitehouse.gov changed, and many pages were removed, including those on health care, disabilities, civil rights, and climate change.
The overhaul was not a complete erasure of the resources that had been available during Obama’s term. As explained in October 2016, the content would be preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration. So the pages were not lost forever: Whitehouse.gov/lgbt could still be found at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/lgbt.
But whether due to an oversight or a purposeful delay, some pages were not removed until more recently. Open.whitehouse.gov, where the Obama administration had hosted White House-relevant open data — government-collected information that is publicly accessible and free for anyone to use — was still up well into the first month of Trump’s takeover. Until a few days ago, that is, when computer programmer Max Ogden tweeted that the data had been removed from the website.
According to Ogden, 9 GB had been removed on February 14, but he had fortunately saved it all a month before, and soon uploaded the saved data to Github, an online hosting service where users can upload, share, and collaborate on code.
Many shared Ogden’s tweet in excited gratitude, thanking him for his new age vigilance.
@denormalize Max, you are a patriot.— Mark Headd (@mheadd) February 14, 2017
But hey… didn’t the NARA freeze and preserve all whitehouse.gov content on January 20?
Yes! You remember! It did. You can access the old site here.
Wait, so then what’s the big deal?
Alex Howard, deputy director of open-tech advocacy nonprofit The Sunlight Foundation, told The Outline that there doesn’t seem to be much of one. “There’s a lot of stuff that we can and should be upset about this administration not doing on open government, but I’m not sure that this is the thing to focus on in quite the way that people are. Particularly when it appears that the data in question still persists at the National Archives.”
Not only is the data accessible through the government’s archives, it’s also partially accessible through Internet Archive, which has archived versions of open.whitehouse.gov.
So the buzz this week seems a bit hyperbolic. However, it’s not completely the fault of the internet rumor mill.
There were no redirects to the archived data on the website, and no announcement from the White House that any change was happening. “The White House is making priority choices by putting up some things as statements and putting effort into some kinds of social media and communications but not others,” Howard said.
This inconsistent communication has created an environment where rumors of malicious plots to erase government data spread wildly, when in reality, the website overhaul is nothing out of the ordinary and the data is safe. According to Howard, the Trump administration has handled the online transition very poorly. “They’ve allowed there to be a vacuum that has then been filled by the public’s fear about the Trump administration removing data from the internet. That is a failure of communication, that is a failure of imagination, that is a failure of governance and transparency.”
It does appear that Ogden may have downloaded more datasets than what is available on either archival site. The apparent inconsistency could be a simple matter of difference in methods used to parse through the original data, or it could reveal more, and should be investigated by open data advocates. In an email to The Outline, Ogden said he hadn’t yet pinned down if there is in fact a difference between his data and the archived versions.
Whatever he finds, the new administration still has work to do.
Open government data is useful not only for transparency and regulation purposes, but for innovation purposes, as citizens gain access to information that is typically only accessible by large, well-funded public institutions. The concept of open data had been spreading during President Obama’s time in office — in 2013 he signed an executive order that heralded a new proactive approach to making government data accessible to the public. In 2014, he signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, requiring the federal agencies to publish spending data online in a standardized format.
As of yet, there’s been no official word from the White House on Trump’s plans for open data.