Open data supporters have expressed trepidation over a new House bill that states Federal agencies will no longer be able to use geospatial information to create open databases on racial disparities and affordable housing.

HR 482, or the Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017, moved to the House Committee on Financial Services on Jan. 12. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sponsored the bill, which would render Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) ineffective. AFFH, a 2015 ruling of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), requires certain HUD grantees to conduct an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) planning process.

“No Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing,” the bill says.

Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, said that his organization is staunchly opposed to the new bill. The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for open government. Howard said the bill sets a dangerous example, and that defunding statistical agency work is the “most likely vector” for shielding the public from government information.

“It’s an area we should all be watching and opposing in terms of people who support open access to data,” Howard said. “That’s exactly the wrong direction for Congress to be going in.”

According to a blog post from the American Association of Geographers (AAG), the bill would prohibit public access to existing geospatial information, as well as the use of Federal funds from agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study such data.

“As written, this represents a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country,” the AAG said in its statement.

The HUD secretary will make the draft report available for public review and comment for a period of at least 180 days, the bill states.

Federal agencies rely on the geospatial information that open data portals provide, Howard said. Many Federal agencies, including the Census Bureau and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have created open data portals. Howard, who has spoken to agencies on behalf of the Sunlight Foundation, said many of them share his concern.

“We’ve been talking with Federal agencies. There are concerns in multiple agencies,” Howard said. “People at these agencies are dedicated public servants. Statistical bureaus are one of the gems of public democracy.”

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Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Big Data, FITARA, Homeland Security, Education, Workforce Issues, and Civilian Agencies.