OPEN Government Data Act (2019): REC's assessment of open data at the FCC

In January, 2019, the President signed the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act into law.  Pub. L. 115-435, 132 Stat. 5534-5554 (2019).  The provisions of this law go into effect in January, 2020.

This law calls for all federal agencies to make available to the public, disclosable, non-confidential data assets including those that would be otherwise available under the Freedom of Information Act. 44 USC 3504(b)(6)

The law requires federal agencies to facilitate collaboration with non-Government entities (including businesses), researchers, and the public for the purpose of understanding how data users value and use government data. 44 USC 3506(b)(2) as amended

Under the law, each agency must establish a Chief Data Officer who would be responsible for carrying out the provisions of the OPEN Data Act and any resulting regulation. 44 USC 3520    The Chief Data Officer at the FCC (as of August, 2020) is Steve Rosenberg.

In the opinion of REC, the FCC was an early adopter of open data by making broadcast data available on the internet since the late 90s as the Commission went through three different filing systems (BAPS, CDBS and LMS).  In addition to providing static data, the FCC does provide several interactive application processing interfaces (APIs) that help the general public properly prepare applications and other documents before the Bureaus of the FCC.  Open data is also widely avaialble in other parts of the Commission outside of the Media Bureau. 

REC is an extensive user of open data from the FCC which includes using data from LMS, CDBS, ULS and IBFS as well as using various open APIs.  REC has also adapted our tools to properly read certain systems, such as CDBS and LMS, for which no real-time API has been established. 

REC’s (09/2020) general review of open data at the FCC

Historically, open data at the FCC has been pioneering and very complete.  REC started using this data back in 1998 and we have definitely seen some developments. However recently, with the recent implementation of the Licensing and Management System (LMS) for FM broadcasting and previous implementations for handling broadcast license renewals and ownership reports, we have found that the FCC, or their contractors have cut corners. 

For example, data that appears on the daily downloads are missing specific columns (such as last names on ownership reports), utilizes incompatible formats that make files non machine readable (such as embedded line feeds in data elements), highly inaccurate information (such as the effective radiated powers on LPFM stations) and entire data tables missing (such as tables used to determine all facilities included in a renewal application).  In addition, updates to the database schema structure are not disclosed in advance, are not well documented and use methods (such as adding new fields to the middle of a row of data instead of on the end) that “break” exisitng applications that use the data. This type of activity results in more unnecessary expense in the private sector and makes the data use unattractive, further depleting the agency’s interest in providing fuller support for the data.

REC’s recent eLMS project specifically addresses the difficent offerings from the LMS raw data.

The FCC also lacks in public outreach.  While each supported system within the FCC has a repository page to download the data and get related documentation such as schemas and code tables, the FCC is currently failing in their efforts to reach out to data users and consult them.  Agencies such as the United States Census Bureau do a much better job of reaching out to their data users. 

With the lack of public outreach, there’s also a lack of true public interface to interact with the FCC staff specifically responsible for information technology.  A formal complaint process hiddenly exists, but there is no true method for experienced end users to contact experienced business and development teams at the FCC.  Instead, we must use Division Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs and hope that our issues make it to the right place. 

Now with the OPEN Government Data Act and the establishment of a Chief Data Officer at the FCC, REC will start working through this channel in order to improve the quality of FCC data, not just for REC’s purposes, but for the other commercial and noncommercial users of radio communications data.  We must also stress to the FCC that there is still more to the FCC than just broadband.  While broadband is important and is well supported by data, we must continue to assure that radio communications data users are not left by the wayside. 

We note that Steve Rosenberg is from the Wireline Competition Bureau, the Bureau within the FCC that handles broadband issues.