The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs a uniform policy across all components on disseminating high quality, objective data that provides utility to all who use it. The data needs to be transparent and reproducible. With regards to the collecting and posting of wait times, much work is still needed across at least three agencies.
Congress passed the Data Quality Act in Sec. 515 of the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (Public Law 106-554; H.R. 5658). The guidelines were implemented in 2002. Agencies are to strive to ensure and maximize the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of the information disseminated to the public. Agencies are also supposed to treat information quality as integral to every step in their development of information, including creating, collection, maintenance, and dissemination.
To this goal, there are inconsistencies across agencies within DHS. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should be recognized for creating a relatively easy to use website on airport wait times. CBP has done a very good job of maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of the information that they disseminate to the public. This data appears to be most useful to the intended audience, the traveler. A traveler can plan for any particular airport and time of day what the median and average wait time would be for clearing CBP at that port of entry. Individuals waiting for family members, for example, can then plan accordingly.
In addition to the traveler being the primary audience, an analyst like myself visiting the website can choose the airport, terminal, time of day, and identify exactly how many people are waiting in line and for how long they are waiting in line. Nearly any period of time can be used to calculate the economic impact related to travel and tourism. Moreover, the transparency of this data means that it is also reproducible and so all parties should be able to obtain the same results.
CBP also has a land border wait time website. The best parts of this site are that CBP identifies, infrastructure permitting, “the processing goals CBP has set for travelers are: NEXUS Lanes: 15 minutes Ready Lanes: 50% of general traffic lane wait times.” In short, this means that CBP has set its own goals, and therefore the American public can hold them accountable towards meeting those goals.
The data, which includes number of lanes open and wait times for those lanes, is usually updated hourly. The data, however, are not collected the same way at each border crossing, confirmed in a 2013 GAO Report. According to the report, the information as it is currently being collected may be considered somewhat unreliable for the intended audience, the traveler.
Fortunately, some operators of border crossings are collecting their own data. The Blue Water Bridge, for example, includes near real-time photographs of approaches on the Canadian and U.S. sides of the border. This provides added confirmation of the time and effort it takes to make the trip. Multiple agencies collecting the same data provides objectivity because over time, the data collection efforts will all be reporting the same information.
Less can be said about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on their collecting and reporting of airport wait times. TSA allows travelers to reports wait times using a mobile app. On May 27, 2015, I viewed wait times for Dulles International Airport. Wait times varied from no wait time to a wait time of more than 30 minutes. These inconsistent observations were as recent as 3:27 AM on May 26, 2015 to as distant as six days prior. The data should be judged on their merit because they were not necessarily collected the same way and at random times. Travelers may find this data be less useful than if they were collected and disseminated in a way that is similar to how CBP collects their wait time data.
At least one other component within DHS also collects and posts wait times. United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides some information on average wait times and current case status. USCIS generally processes cases in the order received. Their website contains estimates of how much time the office handling the case currently takes to process an application, petition or request. The information is updated around the 15th day of each month to reflect current processing times as of the previous full month.
To check the processing times, the applicant needs to know the office where the form is being reviewed, the type of form, and the date on which USCIS received the form. This information can be found on the receipt notice mailed when USCIS accepts the case. The appropriate drop-down menu and corresponding Processing Dates button displays the local processing timeframes.
The three databases on wait times and how the information is presented demonstrate that there is not one uniform way of collecting and measuring wait times. It is difficult, therefore, for some users to trust the data, and from the private sector perspective, to understand how well or poor of a job our government is doing with regard to affecting the U.S. economy. Moreover, for some travelers, it is difficult to determine in near-real time how long it takes to plan for an event or a trip. Therefore, people have to plan to wait for the longest period of time given the variability in wait times rather than plan for the median wait time. This leads people to question whether DHS is disseminating high quality, objective data that provides utility to all who use it. The data needs to be transparent and reproducible.