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Behind the curtain of government data collection

By Alexis Allison 

If you Google the ingredients in sausage, you’ll quickly notice that little standardization exists between recipes. The same is true for the care and keeping of government data — whether at the city, county, or federal level. 

Partway through the panel dubbed, “Inside the sausage factory: An inside look at government data making,” Hunter Owens looked at his fellow panelists and asked, “Should we go into why everything is broken?”

Owens is the senior data scientist for the City of Los Angeles. His fellow panelists, Josh Kalov and Rebecca Williams, each represent a slice of data expertise at another level of government: county and federal, respectively. Kalov previously worked as an open data consultant within Cook County in Chicago, and Williams is a digital services expert at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Behind-the-curtain challenges in government data collection and management were the bedrock of the panel.

For one, the policymaking process does not typically include a conversation about how data that actually measures the policy will be collected, Owens said. Data can be cleft into departmental silos, Kolav added, and tracking outcomes with it is “in its infancy at the county level.”

In the federal space, data collection and management is expensive and difficult to standardize and maintain in a user-friendly format. Three types of federal data exist: statistical, which is heavily monitored; management support data, such as finance data on the newly minted; and programmatic (such as geospatial data), which Williams called the “wild west” of federal data.

“Most government data sets, if not all, have some sort of quality issue,” Williams said.

More complications arise in the data procurement and oversight realms. Changes in data management can be traced to procurement contracts, which exist on the federal level at sites like IT Dashboard.

“When you’re following the money for data changes, looking at the IT contracts is a fast way to get there,” Williams said.

When it comes to oversight, audit reports (sometimes 60-page PDFs) abound — they’re a good place to start digging for what’s available, Owens said. Counties may even maintain an inventory of audit reports, Kolav said. Otherwise, there’s often not an easy, centralized inventory of data.

“There’s no master list of where data lives,” Owens said. That’s why reporters should always send data and records requests to multiple departments, rather than relying on one records clerk.

As with sausage-making, data management is messy. But it’s not all bad. Across the board, there’s a renewed effort toward enterprise data management, or the transparent creation and consistent maintenance of data that’s accurate and up-to-date — both for internal and external use.

The federal government recently updated its FOIA website to better streamline the records request process; the more reporters use it and provide constructive feedback, the better it will be, Williams said. can help reporters track down what data exists as well as relevant contact information and quality issues.

And, the more records requests are filed at any level, the more reporters help make the case for the release of open data, Kolav said.

Owens ended with a request of his own.

“I cannot stress how much we are in need of folks who are willing to put in the effort,” Owens said. “That’s the pitch — you should all work for government one day.”

Click here to view the tipsheet for this session.

Alexis Allison is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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