Agencies must balance access and privacy when deciding which data should be made public and how, according to a recent report.
State and local governments are increasingly expected to share data with the public, which requires regulations and safeguards to ensure ethical and responsible data sharing, the Center for Democracy and Technology said in a recent report.
Governments often rely on data-driven decision-making to shape the policies and services they provide, and some argue that opening and sharing data with the public helps residents assess which benefit programs best fit their needs, the report said. Additionally, making data accessible online reduces administrative burdens because the number of ad hoc requests will decline.
There are data management benefits to government as well. “Setting up a public data access system prompts agencies to pre-vet the suitability of their data for public audiences, establish a streamlined process for releasing data, and document which data requires formal data-sharing agreements to access,” the report said. Following these practices allows agency staff to go beyond descriptive analysis or topline findings and gain deeper insights.
The report highlights four key actions for agencies making data publicly available:
- Establish data governance to reduce risks of irresponsible use. This includes developing policies and goals for publicly releasing data and ensuring data is structured and personally identifiable information is protected.
- Consult with the affected communities and discuss whether their data should be made public and in what form, the report said. Agencies should reach out to government stakeholders to determine what kind of data they are interested in and how they plan to use it. By understanding these factors, administrators can “publish their data in a way that maximizes its potential for beneficial use.”
- Balance privacy, accuracy and granularity within datasets. Privacy-enhancing technologies can be successful, but administrators should conduct robust data analyses to evaluate the risk of reidentification prior to and after its release.
- Evaluate any budget constraints to releasing data. There are considerable labor costs to overseeing data systems, preparing data for publication and maintaining and updating it. Additional expenses may come from infrastructure and computational resources required for hosting, data processing and privacy-enhancing technologies.
“Making government data publicly available can provide many benefits to external audiences and the agency releasing the data,” the report said, “but these benefits can be attained only when potential risks are identified and minimized.”