We are winning—for the moment—the battle for open government data. Everywhere one looks, governments at the local, state, national, and international levels are working toward launching open data portals that share, in a structured format that companies, nonprofits, and developers can reuse, information like budgets, product recalls, factory pollution levels, and crime data. Even Saudi Arabia—a country whose records in accountability, human rights, and transparency are dubious—has an open-data portal.
But that would be a mistake.
As accessibility becomes less politicized, how governments collect data will become the new political battlefield. The most relevant “open” U.S. government data set may be the census. The grand history of disputes over its seemingly benign numbers—what questions to ask, what methodologies to use, what to do about the information—is emblematic of the bickering on the horizon. The census is so contentious because the stakes are so high: Its results determine seat counts in Congress, as well as how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are allocated. Yet the numbers have long been plagued by inaccuracies. The 1990 census failed to include an estimated 8 million immigrants and urban minorities while double-counting roughly 4 million white Americans.