The Data Briefing: The Challenge of Opening up Federal Government Algorithms

Feb 24, 2016

Algorithms are becoming more important as the amount of data grows, and the complexity of government and business processes grows. Put simply, an algorithm is just a set of steps for solving a problem. If you shop online, use an online social network or a mobile app to plan your route, then you are using an algorithm: A sophisticated algorithm that uses large amounts of data to make hundreds (or thousands) of decisions in milliseconds. Algorithms control the movement of trillions of dollars, determine the flow of goods throughout the world and whether people have the credit rating to buy a home.

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Because of the impact of algorithms in the world, the federal government has two challenges concerning algorithms. The first challenge is how businesses and nonprofits use federal government open data in third-party algorithms. For example, high-speed trading algorithms use federal government economic data to execute trades in fractions of a second. An out-of-control algorithm could cause major economic damage in the time you took to read this sentence. Other algorithms can be used to evade government regulations as a recent automaker did in circumventing emissions controls.

As there is growing concern over how the private sector uses algorithms, there is the second challenge over how the federal government uses algorithms to carry out government business. A 2015 study found the algorithms used to determine Social Security benefits contain errors in estimating demographic trends and the solvency of several federal trust funds. There have been several cases where the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was successfully used to compel federal agencies to disclose their algorithms. FOIA requests for algorithms have also been successfully denied because of privacy concerns or the possibility that such disclosure could expose a third-party’s trade secret.

Opening up federal government data has been a boon for the American economy and has helped revolutionize the delivery of government services. Opening up the design and use of algorithms in the federal government will also revolutionize the delivery of government services while increasing transparency and citizen confidence in the federal government’s operations. The harder argument is how much control the federal government should have over how federal government open data is being used in third-party algorithms. Whatever the decision, opening up federal government data is the first step in confronting the issues posed by the escalating importance of algorithms, machine learning and the Internet of Things in how the federal government will operate in the future.Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.