As our friends at the OpenGov Foundation know all too well, open access to the law is not a given in American cities: Many, if not most, of the city ordinances, executive orders, resolutions and other policy documents that govern our municipalities are not being proactively released online as open, structured, machine-readable data for anyone to access, download and reuse. We believe that open data policy can help address this problem, but we’re not seeing many real-world examples of this yet. We previously elaborated on the issues addressed by our newOpen Data Policies Decodedresource, namely that open data policy in American cities is certainly not setting a good example of open access to the law;open data policies themselves are not open, and what’s worse is that many of these policies are actually potentially creating barriers to municipalities sharinganypolicy as open data.
That’s because many of these policies either implicitly or explicitly exclude nonquantitative/nontabular data (such as textual data) from being included as part of open data programs in theirlegal definitions of data/open data. In reviewing the definitions of “data,” “public information/data” and “open data” laid out in open data policies, we found that nearly half of state, county, or municipal open data policies are restrictive or somewhat restrictive of “non-narrative” or non “quantitative” or “textual” data.
For instance, in the2014 ordinance of Jackson, Mich.,defines “open data”as follows:
Did you catch that? “As opposed to solely textual documents.” Some of the most important public information, including public policy, is contained in textual documents — and this information can and should be open too.
And Jackson is not alone. ConsiderNew York’s City’s 2012 Local Law 11, a highly visible open data policy laying out the country’s largest municipal open data program. Because of this viability, many of the policy ideas contained in Local Law 11 have been replicated elsewhere. Reuse of good policy ideas from New York City in other jurisdictions has largely been a good thing, helping best practices in open data to take hold throughout the country. However, one oft-replicated aspect of New York Local Law 11 isthe law’s definition of “data,” which specifies that open data is “non-narrative.”By our count, this definition — which may be interpreted as discouraging the inclusion of important public information like policy text in open data programs — has spread to at least 14 other open data policies throughout the country.
Definitions of open data and related terms in cities across the U.S. To view this in a new window, click here. When remix culture is at its best, reuse involves tweaking the original to create thoughtful variants and improvements. One such variant to NYC Local Law 11’s definition of data was an important addition made in Montgomery County, Md. (MoCo).