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ATF Open Data: Improving Public Understanding and Reducing the FOIA Backlog

This post is an excerpt from our recent pocket guide, Open Data 101: Breaking Down What You Need to Know. You can download the full pocket guide for free here.

Starting in early 2013, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched an API to make aggregated trace data on firearms available via ATF.gov. This release meant ATF was the first agency inside the Department of Justice to join the open data movement, leading the way for broader DOJ participation.

That release has been so successful that ATF is now deploying a full open data portal. “In being one of the first to comply with the White House’s initiative,” said Jim Burch, Assistant Director of Public and Governmental Affairs at ATF, “we have the perspective to see how much more we can be doing related to releasing data about our priority mission areas, including firearms, explosives, and arson.”

It doesn’t take more than a cursory look at the evening news to understand why ATF data on firearms licenses, trace recoveries, and types of firearm crime are some of the most in demand among government information. The ATF is also one of the most heavily regulated agencies in terms of what information it can release. This oversight, and the sensitive nature of portions of the ATF’s mission, create a seemingly endless stream of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the agency.

For decades, the ATF released data on paper or in a static electronic format, as a PDF file. But the bureau realized that information in a static file format did not allow the firearms industry or the public to easily analyze data or make it more comprehensible. The need to build greater faith in the agency led the ATF to move toward greater data transparency, accessibility, and awareness.

To achieve their goals and better meet the needs of the public, ATF built an API in 2013 that would transform paper and static electronic ATF documents into an open data website that would make their data more accessible and consumable for the general public.

The bureau was off to a good start with its initial data set release on its open data portal. However, the ATF quickly discovered it was not enough to have a data catalog and APIs — much of the public was missing out on its move toward data transparency. So it determined the next iteration of its open data website had to be meaningful to a larger portion of the public. To achieve this, the bureau’s newest portal will offer greater searchability, ready-to-consume reports and graphs, and a more user-friendly experience.

“There is likely a host of people interested in our data who’ve never thought about accessing it before,” Burch said, referring to civic hackers and citizen scientists. “We expect that their use of ATF information could help policy analysts on all sides of the issues, law enforcement, industry experts, and others in ways we haven’t thought of.”

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