Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Risk Management, Open Data, and Government Shutdowns

By Dennis D. McDonald

Click or tap above image to download a .pdf of this article.As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security moves closer to a shutdown my thoughts turn to the impact this will have on those who are depending on the data provided by that agency’s various data sources. 

DHS makes data from its constituent agencies available online including immigration statistics, Coast Guard maritime information, and disaster declarations. If you go over to you’ll see a note titled Launching Disasters.Data.Gov to Empower First Responders and Survivors with Innovative Tools and Data where you’ll see described portals, apps, and tools designed to aid first responders. How will a shutdown affect these services?

While I’ve written before about the problems that shutdowns cause to government project managers who have to accommodate the extra costs and scheduling uncertainties that agency shutdowns cause, more direct and immediate impacts are bound to arise as data services become more prevalent as a way to augment and deliver government services. It’s one thing if academic researchers are performing a longitudinal analysis when data sources are disrupted; such impacts might not be viewed as critical from a “national security” perspective. It’s another if local government agencies become dependent on Federally supplied data to aid in planning and managing law enforcement or emergency response action.

Also, what if the consumer of data from a Federal agency’s “open data” program is a for-profit or non-profit publisher or start-up that has, with the full cooperation of the government, employed regularly updated data files to support the creation and marketing of successful subscription products? What will be the impact of a sudden shutdown of source data on them if the only real source of the data is the government itself? Will the people involved in building the product have to be furloughed? Can subscribers find necessary substitutes?

These are not theoretical concerns.  Government agencies are becoming more dependent on digital means for delivering services not only in support of “transparency” but also because the world in general is conducting more business and communication activities online. Agencies are also exploring ways to augment their services by partnering with private sector organizations to expand access to government information. A sudden turn-off of digital access to government services — as might be required by the agency shutdown — must at minimum be figured into the risk management planning of any organization planning to offer or use products or services that are dependent on government-sourced open data. 

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Copyright © 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. His experience includes consulting company ownership and management, database publishing and data transformation, managing the integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. Clients have included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Library of Medicine. He has worked as a project manager, analyst, and researcher throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. His web site is located at and his email address is On Twitter he is @ddmcd.

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