In almost any city you can read your local leaders’ emails if you formally ask for them. In Gainesville, Fla., all you have to do is go here.
In most states you can find out how tax dollars are being spent if you officially request expenditure records. In Wisconsin, you just click here.
For the last 50 years, governments have given up public records in response to Freedom of Information requests. But a number of public agencies are learning the value of proactively providing information before anyone has to ask for it.
The trend is part of the open-data movement that most large cities and the federal government have already begun to embrace. The information itself can range from simple emails to complex datasets, but the general idea is the same: Deliver information directly to the public using digital tools that can save money and serve the goal of government transparency.
“I would love to see more cities move toward proactive disclosure,” said Sheila Dugan, a Code for America fellow who helped develop a public-information portal for Oakland, Calif. “We should proactively start giving the public information about what’s going on in their cities and counties. Post it online, make it searchable, make it downloadable.”
Even though the movement is in its early stages, agencies in more than a third of U.S. states are “beginning to make headway” in adopting open-data portals, according to a recent survey of state chief information officers.
Gainesville began posting the emails of its mayor and city commissioners in May. More than 25,000 messages are available in a database that can be searched by name, date or key word. Some emails are not shared if they contain confidential information, but City Commission Clerk Kurt Lannon says that only applies to a select few.
In January, the state of Wisconsin launched OpenBook Wisconsin, offering millions of state agency spending records in a searchable database that’s updated every two weeks.
Gov. Scott Walker calls the site part of his “ongoing commitment to making state government more transparent,” and local investigative reporters say it’s a good start toward that goal, albeit one still in need of fine-tuning.
Other municipalities have taken similar steps, but a leader when it comes to open data is New York City. In 2012 the City Council passed a law requiring all city agencies to open their data by 2018 in an effort to “make the operation of city government more transparent, effective and accountable to the public.”
More than 1,200 datasets are available for searching, exploring and exporting, covering everything from restaurant inspections to vehicle collisions to noise complaints.
New York State also has distinguished itself with its open data portal, which combines information from the federal, state and local level in a user-friendly site that was just recognized by the Open Data Institute for its “high publishing standards and use of challenging data.”
And despite the low grades the Obama administration has earned for its transparency record, the federal government has also become a model with FOIAonline, where you can search previous FOIA requests and the responsive records, and with Data.gov, an online hub of open data.
More Transparency = Less Money
Asking governments to throw open the doors on public records is a culture change for sure, but it can lead to exciting things. Users are layering and reconfiguring data to make all sorts of helpful apps and services, many of them built on open-source software that can be adopted elsewhere for free.
“As agencies release the data, the owners of that data – even those who have been protective of it – are delighted when they find that lo and behold there are scientists, there are academics, there are entrepreneurs, there are others who can do things with it that frankly they had not anticipated,” Kathy Conrad of the U.S. General Services Administration said at a recent Paley Center for Media event on technology and open government.
And there’s the added benefit of helping the bottom line. Users don’t have to request information if it’s already posted, saving agencies time and money, and a centralized FOIA tracking system can further streamline processing.
Sean Moulton of the Center for Effective Government testified before Congress that full participation in FOIAonline could save federal agencies an estimated $40 million per year in processing costs.
And Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit that pushes for transparency in New York, estimated in a June report that New York City could reduce FOI-related costs by 66 percent – from $20 million per year down to $7 million – by adopting an open-data system and doing away with its “hodgepodge of paper-based methods that are expensive, slow and unreliable.”
So…What’s the Catch?
In their survey, chief information officers were asked to name the top three barriers to advancing open data in state government. Fifty-three percent cited “agencies’ willingness to publish data,” and 49 percent cited “the reliability of the data.”
Information is of little value to the public if it’s faulty or too complex to understand. It could become a way for agencies to claim they’re being transparent without actually providing anything useful.
Plus, some worry that public servants will self-censor if they know, for example, their emails are automatically being shared with the world.
“What I’m nervous about, if I put on my conspiracy hat for a second, is that there will be less records, less willingness to put things down, if people have more access,” said Brian Hofer, a privacy advocate who regularly requests public records through the Oakland portal Dugan helped build.
Either way, people have come to expect quick, easy information in their personal lives thanks to smart technology. They will inevitably come to want that from government as well, and government will have to respond.
“This is about … the power of processing and technology to empower individuals,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said at the Paley Center event. “Open data may come and go as a concept and as a name – though I doubt it will – but that’s okay because the expectation will stay with us.”
Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.