Data disappeared from Obama administration site promoting transparency
February 22, 2017 12:00 AM
The homepage of the website Open.WhiteHouse.gov, as seen on Tuesday night.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — If you wanted to know who visited the White House, how much the president’s secretary is paid, or which state has the most federally funded teaching positions, the information was just a few clicks away. With a bit more technical knowledge, you could explore public data sets to analyze the president’s budget, or look for trends in government spending.
Dozens of data sets disappeared last week from Open.WhiteHouse.gov, a website the Obama administration created to promote government transparency.
Visitors to the website now and find a message saying “check back for new data.” But it isn’t clear when any new data will be posted, and government watchdogs aren’t confident that it will ever happen.
“We are working to open up the new sites,” White House press aide Helen Ferre emailed in response to questions. She did not respond to follow-up questions about the content of the “new sites,” whether they will include visitor logs, why data sets were removed, and when aides will post new information.
"Are they ever going to do it? We don’t know,” said Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation.
The data the Obama administration provided hasn’t been deleted. Rather it’s been preserved by the National Archives in accordance with a law that prohibits federal data from being destroyed. Find it at https://open.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/.
That’s helpful, but far from ideal, government watchdogs say.
The data is no longer in a user-friendly format. Users have to have the technical knowledge to unpack zipfiles and must have software that can handle large files with millions of rows of data.
That’s a lot more cumbersome than plugging name into a search box and having the website instantly return a list of dates someone has visited the White House.
The Obama White House began posting government data in 2009 to provide structured data that researchers could use to learn about how government operates. At the time, aides said they hoped to create a precedent for future administrations.
They approached it from the default position that government data belongs to the public, and it should be easily accessible and machine-readable. They also tried to put the data in formats that would easily allow software developers and researchers to use and analyze.
The website they created is still up, providing the architecture for transparency, but the Trump digital communications team hasn’t updated it.
“We can’t say that [removing the data] was malevolent necessarily, but we can say that it was not competent,” and that someone took an affirmative action to remove the data, Mr. Howard said. The removal occurred sometime after Feb. 8 and without any public explanation or notice.
“Somebody is not running this part of the website in any way that shows due diligence or even a minimum effort to communicate to the public. People are going there to find out what’s happening, and they’re not telling them where to find the old data or when they’re uploading new data,” Mr. Howard said.
And, he said, they’re doing it while Mr. Trump is telling people to trust the White House and not “dishonest” media.
“If you’re saying the media can’t be trusted and ‘Believe us,’ then tell us what you’re doing. You can’t have it both ways. … You can’t say don’t trust them but we’re not going to tell you what’s happened,” Mr. Howard said. “If we believe that an informed public is critical to a functioning democracy, then connecting data to people who are interested in knowing how their government is working or not working is paramount.”
President Donald Trump boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House earlier this month, headed for his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Mr. Trump has spent nearly every weekend there since taking office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Still, he said, it’s not unreasonable for websites to change to reflect the priorities of the current president. The administration has that discretion, but it’s disconcerting that there have been no indications that transparency is a priority, Mr. Howard said.
“There hasn’t been a public statement about what open government means to this administration or what they think about the idea that government-funded information should be accessible to the public on the Internet,” he said.
It’s disturbing, said Sean Moulton, program manager for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
“If you’re not posting this material, at least make it clearer when you’re going to do it and when. Having an upfront discussion and clear plan would set a lot of minds at ease,” Mr. Moulton said. “The longer we don’t know and the longer it is that this material isn’t getting posted, the greater the concern gets.”
D.J. Patil, the Obama administration’s chief data scientist, who had been following the president’s directive to open up even more data sets across the federal government, is worried that the Trump administration will take steps backward that would harm research and innovation along with government transparency.
Data sharing has allowed scientists outside the government to make new discoveries in fields as diverse as opioid abuse, weather prediction and traffic fatalities.
“The complexities the country faces can’t be solved by one person. Solutions are found by bringing the full force of the United States of America to the problem,” Mr. Patil said. “The reason we open up scientific data is because we don’t expect to find all the answers ourselves. We have a nation of really smart people.”
Watchdog groups are more concerned about being able to use data to hold government accountable.
White House visitor logs, for example, became an important resource for understanding the effects of influence and lobbying.
“It helped people understand more about who’s talking to whom,” Mr. Moulton said. “When the White House comes out with a policy, you want to know where the idea came from. Who did they speak to? Was this something they got a lot of input on from different perspectives, or did they really only hear one perspective and then write a policy.”
The logs were never perfect. The information in them was collected as part of Secret Service security protocol and was never meant to be a log of meetings. The logs provide only names, dates and times of visits, so it isn’t possible to know what was discussed or even which of the country’s 46,901 John Smiths visited.
Still, government watchdogs have been able to use the logs to piece together the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the creation of the Affordable Care Act. Reporters have used it to write about Google’s expansive access to the White House as it worked to partner on government projects, and to reveal that Mr. Obama had more meetings with actor George Clooney than with the administration’s drug czar.
Mr. Trump takes a lot of his meetings at Trump Tower in New York City and at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, where he’s spent nearly every weekend since taking office.
“If that’s the case, why should the same standards of disclosure apply?” Mr. Howard asks. “He’s created a machine for influence that is unprecedented in modern American history. People can pay to stay at the hotels, they can play at his golf clubs, and they can pay to sway at his private club.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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