Government Cloud Computing May Sustain Public Records

The fate of Data.gov, which housed hundreds of thousands of public data when its funding got cut, may contain the outlines of a model for sustaining digital records.
by | February 2012

A walk across the Washington state capitol campus illustrates the adage, “There is nothing as permanent as a temporary arrangement,” and its corollary, “Permanence is more temporary than originally thought.”

The dust is still settling from a round of agency consolidations and office shuffles in a budget-cutting move that saw the state hand back keys to 14 leased buildings in Olympia. One post-World War II brick building, which remains vulnerable to earthquake damage, still has tenants, but the agency it once housed has been merged out of existence. Others, including the state insurance and library building, are no longer home to their original tenants.

Such is the life of buildings. When their purpose changes, the public records they once held are boxed up and loaded into trucks to be archived in an unseen warehouse somewhere. It’s a process that rarely attracts comment because it is so familiar, and the paper trail well documented.

We seem to be much less confident or comfortable in separating content from their containers in the digital world. The shuttering of, changes to or moves by government-controlled websites, apps or social media pages raise immediate concerns about the loss of the public data they contain.

There has been no larger potential loss than in the case of Data.gov. The federal government’s repository of raw, meta and geospatial data won the data arms race -- growing from 39 data sets in 2009 to 390,000 sets by last summer -- but lost the war when Congress cut funding for the initiative. The Sunlight Foundation and other transparency advocates campaigned to restore the money, but to no avail. Data.gov lives on in a couple of places: a so-called next-generation cloud version run by a Seattle-based technology company, and an archive in the CyberCemetery, a digital graveyard at the University of North Texas Libraries that maintains permanent public access to orphaned U.S. government websites and publications.

But the fate of Data.gov may, ironically, contain the outlines of a model for sustaining digital records. “We think that startups could take these apps (and the underlying data) that are built and turn them into cloud-based businesses,” says Abhi Nemani, the director of Strategy and Communications for Code for America (CfA), a self-described nonpartisan, nonprofit incubator for doing government differently through technology.

Nemani says the startup accelerator is one of the group’s priorities this year, as is the CfA Brigade, a citizen army of open source “civic hackers” who help build public service data projects. The brigade launches next month. “It’s our way to start offloading some of the responsibility from governments onto the community groups that use the applications themselves,” he says.

Taken together, they offer a new approach to sustaining digital-based initiatives that often seem too temporary to be taken seriously. Something important happens as these digital services begin to take on the characteristics of permanence -- including the preservation of content -- and the organizations that create them are continually being remade: Government agencies become less fearful of testing and launching new initiatives.

“We have to recognize that some of this is going to be disposable. Let’s not expect that everything has to succeed,” says Nemani. “When we talk about the change we are going to bring to government, we have to accept that failure is OK.”

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