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OpenGov Voices: Portals, Priorities, and Standards: Taking the Long Road to Open Data in Utah

by guest author Jason Williams

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

A photo of Jason Williams
Photo courtesy of the author

Jason Williams is a journalist and political activist who was part of a working group created to provide recommendations for Utah’s “right to know Law” -- GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act). You can catch up with him on his blog The SideTrack, which has daily updates of his work. Jason also hosts a show on KVNU in Utah.

To really understand the story of Open Data in Utah, you have to go back to 2011 and an attempt by state lawmakers to change Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) as it pertained to new technology and their electronic communications. Public backlash and a threat of a citizen initiative led to the governor's signing of HB477 then due to public pressure called a special legislative session to have lawmakers repeal it.  The signing also led to the assembly of a working group to study and "update" the 20 year-old GRAMA laws. The working group recommended a few changes to the laws that increased rather than limited access and lawmakers listened. But in three months of intense study and expert testimony on public records management and access, new light was shed on some major issues with consistency of processes and practices in managing our public records.

In 2012, I approached leadership in the Utah State Senate with printed copies of the Sunlight Foundation's Open Data Guidelines, a sponsor was found and during the 45 day 2013 legislative session, SB283 was passed. In that bill, the Utah Transparency Advisory Board -- which had been tackling only state financial data transparency to date -- was repopulated with agency directors, city and county spokespersons, state archivists, members of the public, lawmakers and the Governor's finance wonk and tasked with turning the Open Data Standard Guidelines into a set of policy recommendations for legislative management via interim study.

(If you want to skip ahead, you can read our final recommendations made in Nov 24, 2013, here.)

Utah State Senate in session
Utah State Senate in Session discussing SB 283 see the video here.

There is a lot to say about approaching open data policy via the mechanism of a legislative interim board vs. immediate legislation via public votes, which was originally our goal.

The board began meeting in April. Minutes are available and the audio is coming soon. The board was fully populated by July and by August I had learned two things: The process was excruciatingly slow and I am not a patient person. While discussions, expert testimony and inquiry from around the state were eye opening, I was beginning to wonder if the board would have any recommendations at all by our mandated November deadline. We would spend a meeting on the costs and mechanisms of Data.Oregon.Gov, or the challenges of defining "technical best practices" for city archives, only to wrap up with more questions and diverging opinions than when we began. Other meetings would get anchored on a certain point or contention and time would run out. But behind the scenes, something I was naive to was happening.

In October, our chairperson (and original sponsor who created this responsibility for the board) suggested we break into working groups in four categories: Finance, Portals, Priorities and Open Data Standards. I joined the "Open Data Standards" working group, but also met with the "Portals" and "Priorities" groups several times. It was obvious in all first meetings that the lethargic pace wasn't a bug in the legislative board process, but a feature. Everyone by this time had vented, disagreed, taken issue with, or spoken in support of each aspect of what we were there to do. So we just went to work.

We covered more ground in the final month than the previous five. But only because of those previous five.

What emerged is a set of recommendations that were refined, simplified, tempered and contrasted against the realities of budget and technology realities by this legislative process, while preserving many core principles of Sunlight's Open Data Guidelines. They are decidedly "open data" not "Open Data" policy, for better or worse. They are well researched and also anticipate concerns of lawmakers who will give them the aye or nay in a few months.

Was it the best way we could get here? I don't know. But I have a new respect for legislative committees and plodding interim studies. Are these recommendations sure to be implemented in full? No. This process is far from a finished and is still (will always be) new and unpredictable ground for Utah. Lawmakers may choose to bite off all, some, or none of this in the next session. But having been vetted through the interim board process, with sincere endorsements from legislative leaders, local transparency watchdogs and some prominent city and county officials since their publication, these recommendations go on to the public debates and votes of the 2014 legislative session with much higher odds.

Stay tuned...

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com