Guiding Strong Open Data Policies

Updated guidelines for defining what open data policies can and should do.

By Alisha Green.

Open data policies are quickly spreading across the country as a way for state and local governments to increase transparency, enhance efficiencies, improve service quality, and boost public participation. These policies encourage and, in their best iterations, require proactive disclosure of public information, putting data online for easy access and reuse. Open data policies update the old process of requiring people to ask for access to public records, bringing information sharing in line with the capabilities of current technology.

Last summer, we at the Sunlight Foundation counted fewer than 20 open data policies among states, cities, counties and towns across the country. Now, that number has increased to more than 30 — and the number continues to rise.

We’ve been supporting the spread of these policies by assessing new developments and providing resources to aid and improve in-progress efforts at opening data. Our Open Data Policy Guidelines are one key resource in this process. The Guidelines, created in mid-2012, were first updated last summer. We continue to learn from our experiences assessing and aiding open data efforts across the country and, this year, we’ve updated the Guidelines again to reflect some of those lessons.

The Guidelines are not just ambitious — they are actionable.

The Guidelines are still structured in a way that aligns with the evolution of open data efforts, addressing questions about what data should be publichow to make data public, and how to implement policy. What’s new is some of the organization and explanation of the provisions within those three categories. We believe these changes make the document stronger as a whole and can provide needed guidance for crafting robust open data policies.

One of the biggest changes is embedding the aspirational “open by default” provision in the framing language for the Guidelines as a whole. We’ve updated the first provision to spell out this idea in immediately actionable terms, advocating for proactive disclosure of public information. This still embodies the idea of open by default, capturing the principle that people should be able to find information online, where they are already looking for it, rather than having to make a request.

Some of the other major updates include new provisions about the process of prioritizing data for release, asking data managers to recommend language for citing datasetsproviding appropriately varied formats for different data uses, and encouraging reuse by making data license-free.

We also expanded on several existing provisions. We made more complete recommendations about creating an inventory of information holdings. The formerly separate provisions about safeguarding sensitive information and using a balance test to do so appropriately have beenfused into one provision to emphasize the need for the processes to happen together. The provision is also expanded to encourage access for researchers. The language describing recommended data formats was updated to provide clearer definitions of open formats, machine-readability, and structured data. Examples were added to the provision aboutoversight authority to help iterate the varied structures that management of open data programs can take. The provision about partnerships was expanded, too, to include more examples of collaborative steps governments can take.

As with our last update to the Guidelines, the newest version includes robust examples of open data policy language. These examples, from all levels of government, show ways the principles embodied in the Guidelines are already being put into practice. The Guidelines are not just ambitious — they are actionable. The ideas are already being implemented successfully around the country, and we’re looking forward to seeing more examples as additional communities embrace the need for proactive disclosure of public information.

We’re continuing to explore the local landscape of open data and finding ways to support its development. If you’d like to talk about how to bring an open data policy to your community, or improve current open data efforts, please free to contact us at local(at)sunlightfoundation(dot)com. We welcome your input. We hope that, by working together, we can continue the evolution of open data on the local level.

Originally posted at Data-Smart City Solutions.

Alisha Green works with Sunlight Foundation’s local policy team to improve online access to government information. That includes everything from researching and writing about the landscape of municipal data disclosure to providing feedback on proposed open data, open meetings and open government ordinances at the state and local levels.

Her passion for access to information comes from her roots as a journalist. Alisha previously worked as a capitol correspondent at a political newsletter in Lansing, Michigan. She covered Michigan’s House of Representatives and contributed to a weekly podcast roundup of political events, along with making other radio and TV appearances. She had experience prior to that producing video and multimedia projects in addition to writing articles for print and online publication. Alisha is a Michigan State University graduate with a bachelor’s in journalism and a specialization in peace and justice studies.

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