What’s an open data policy look like?

In 2013, the San Diego Regional Data Library released a report, Municipal Open Data Policies. The report is a nice guide for what had been done through that time and how it had been done in eight United States’ cities.

The report specifically examines these areas for comparison and provides side by side charts:

  • Motivations
  • Staff and organization
  • Administration
  • Form of publication
  • What data is released
  • Soliciting feedback

At just seven pages, you should read it for yourself, but here’s some quick information to an idea of the content covered:

MOTIVATIONS: They list these five as being the basics:

  • Transparency. Increasing government openness and the availability of information about government and its proceedings.
  • Participation. Allowing and encouraging citizens to participate in government and civic life.
  • Collaboration. Improving the extent to which city departments work together, or the city government works with private organizations.
  • Innovation. Interest in civic applications, new ideas, and new solutions to problems.
  • Progress. Civic development, economic improvement, or other aspects of community growth.

STAFF AND ORGANIZATION: Not all the policies were specific but these are the positions identified in the ones that were:

  • Department Data Officer. Departments are directed to assign a person to be the liaison or manager for the department’s open data efforts, usually reporting to an advisory committee.
  • Chief Data Officer. Establish a role to head open data efforts across the municipal governments. Chairs the advisory committee, if it exists.
  • Advisory Committee. Create an advisory committee at the municipal level to oversee the entire program.

ADMINISTRATIVE EFFORTS: These are the ones the report identifies as being covered in the policy documents:

  • Regular Reporting. Departments must report on release schedules, compliance, or other aspects of implementing the program.
  • Reasonable Effort. The document states that departments shall make a “reasonable effort” to release datasets.
  • Develop Guidelines. Data-producing departments, the central IT department, or the advisory committee are instructed to create guidelines for technical or administrative policies.
  • No Restrictions. There shall be no restrictions on who can access or use data, and the website where the data is published shall not require registration before accessing data.
  • Privacy Preserved. The document explicitly states that when publishing data, existing requirements regarding privacy remain in force. Data that would not have been releasable to the public previously due to privacy controls still cannot be released.
  • Keep Current. Departments are instructed to ensure that after data is published, it is updated on a regular basis.

FORM OF PUBLICATION: The report says most of the policies define the form for data publication as follows:

  • Open, Useful. The document includes language that describes the formats in which data will be published as “open,” “searchable,” “usable,” “easily analyzable,” or using similar language.
  • Specifies Portal. The document explicitly names the URL where the data will be published.
  • Open Source. The document mentions Open Source software as a goal or motivation.

WHAT DATA IS RELEASED: Apparently this was not as uniform as you might think and some policies leave it to the departments:

  • All Datasets Controlled. Departments are required to make a reasonable effort to release all of their data, or justify what data they can’t release.
  • Specified Datasets. The document lists the datasets that will be released.
  • Identify Datasets. Departments are required to identify which datasets they will release.
  • Required Release. Departments are given a schedule to release some high-value datasets.
  • Voluntary Increase. Departments can waive exemptions and release data that they could choose to withhold.

SOLICIT FEEDBACK: Only half of the cities had explicit requirements related to soliciting public feedback.

At the end of the report, they provide a nice set of recommendations broken out by each of the six categories used in the report. These recommendations are directed at San Diego County municipalities, so that they can get started, but definitely could assist any entity that is contemplating and crafting an open data policy and implementation plan. There’s also a good list of additional resources, including the seminal Sunlight Foundation guidelines.

The most important takeaway is stated upfront: the difference between crafting and enacting policy, and implementing it:

In many cases, a city’s open government policy begins with a city council resolution or executive order from the Mayor, and is followed by an ordinance. Resolutions tend to be composed primarily of motivations, with a small number of vague features. Executive orders also have more motivations than features, but provide a stronger mandate for the city to embark on a process to define and implement an Open Data Policy. For most cities an ordinance, a change to the city’s laws, should be the goal of Open Data advocacy; it is only when Open Data policies are translated into ordinances that the policies will have both the mandate and longevity that citizens should expect, although some cities can achieve the same permanence with an executive order.

As awareness about and commitment to open data culture advances in Northeast Ohio, it is critical that we keep this distinction and the necessity of both policy (executive orders, council resolutions) and plans (ordinances, rules) in mind.

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