What Losing Access to Federal Data Could Mean for Researchers and Advocates

Dian Nostikasari | @dnostikasari | April 13, 2017

Image via flickr/Matthew Musgrove.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. 

Data increasingly drives the ways both citizens and governments make decisions. The term “data-driven policy” has found champions across multiple sectors because it is seen by advocates as a more immediate, responsive way to govern and engage citizens. But the introduction of two bills threatens to change that.

Two bills pending in Congress, S.103 and H.R. 482 have sparked a flurry of activity from librarians, scientists, students, archivists, programmers and technologists who fear that data previously available from the federal government might be lost.

The bills seek to invalidate the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rules on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH)—a set of guidelines and tools providing access to a federal database of geospatial information that can be used to investigate disparities often experienced by lower-income and minorities accessing affordable housing.

Regardless of whether these specific bills pass, they raise important questions about the politicization of data and its effects across policy areas, beginning with fair housing.

The bills raise concerns about the potential precedent to limit the way researchers, community groups and other organizations can use data to show evidence of “disparate impact” or discrimination. The research community could lose valuable resources that have been used to highlight increased disparity in cities and regions across the country.

Researchers in many disciplines — urban planning, public policy, public health and more — study the effects of housing instability on people’s daily lives. Locally, Data Rescue Houston is a proactive effort to preserve the integrity of the knowledge that can come out of having these data publicly available. It’s bringing together programmers, librarians, scientists, students, archivists, technologists, and other volunteers to identify, download, and help preserve federal data resources at risk of being removed from the public web.

For fair housing, researchers need access to information about racial and economic segregation by looking at the spatial distribution of where people of different race/ethnicity and class live. In other policy areas, such as climate change and environmental hazards mitigation, access to information about where people live relative to flood zones and reoccurring flooding areas is essential to understanding who are most affected by flooding.

These data sets are also critical for protecting underserved communities since they’re used by researchers and activists seeking to show certain actions, such as lead exposure to children, occur mostly in lower-income communities. These communities often become the dumping ground for toxic-producing industries precisely because they don’t have the power to fight back. Publicly available data provides a necessary shared talking point between stakeholders and critical evidence to hold irresponsible industries accountable in court.

Removing or halting the production of government-supported data sets also has the potential to increase reliance on data collected by private entities and corporations. This commodification of data may actually provide more data collection, but it also could mean less access, transparency and accountability.

Dian Nostikasari is a research fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. She can be reached at diann@rice.edu.

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