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Crowdlaw and open data policy: A perfect match?

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Crowdlaw allows anyone to submit comments and annotations to draft policy. (Image credit: Madison, a tool from the OpenGov Foundation)

The open government community has long envisioned a future where all public policy is collaboratively drafted online and in the open — a future in which we (the people) don’t just have a say in who writes and votes on the rules that govern our society, but are empowered in a substantive way to participate, annotating or even crafting those rules ourselves. If that future seems far away, it’s because we’ve seen few successful instances of this approach in the United States. But an increasing amount of open and collaborative online approaches to drafting legislation — a set of practices the NYU GovLab and others have called “crowdlaw” — seem to have found their niche in open data policy.

This trend has taken hold at the local level, where multiple cities have employed crowdlaw techniques to draft or revise the regulations which establish and govern open data initiatives. But what explains this trend and the apparent connection between crowdlaw and the proactive release of government information online? Is it simply that both are “open government” practices? Or is there something more fundamental at play here?

The Sunlight local team has been exploring this question recently as part of our involvement in the What Works Cities initiative. The below post will review the growing trend of open, collaborative legislative processes in drafting open data policy, including current efforts underway in Las Vegas.

Crowdlaw and local open data: A growing trend in participatory policy drafting

While Sunlight’s federal work got us thinking about the potential of online tools like Public Markup to usher in a future of greater accountability in our legislative processes, it has been innovative public officials and community activists in American cities who have led the way in connecting the dots between crowdlaw and local open data policy.

Since 2012, several high-profile U.S. cities have utilized collaborative tools such as Google Docs, GitHub, and Madison to open up the process of open data policymaking. The below chronology of notable instances of open data policy drafted using crowdlaw techniques gives the distinct impression of a good idea spreading in American cities:

  • March 2012: New York City adopts local law 11, accompanying this open data policy with a technical standards manual released in a policy wiki. The wiki is later migrated to a GitHub page with a "Suggest feedback" button inviting public participation and edits in prose.io (see “Providing Your Feedback”).
  • April 2013: In a project jointly organized by Open San Diego, Code for San Diego, the San Diego Regional library and others, San Diego's draft open data plan is posted on GitHub. The repository is described in the readme file as “a place to collaboratively edit a proposed Open Data Policy for adoption by the San Diego City Council or Mayor and by Cities and other legislative bodies or executives in the Region.” Feedback is encouraged through GitHub itself (“Pull Requests Welcome!”).
  • July 2013: In Cambridge, Mass., Councilmember Leland Cheung works with Code for Boston, city officials from both Cambridge and Boston, and other community members to gather feedback at a committee meeting. This is then incorporated into a draft open data policy shared online in a public Google Doc to solicit feedback.
  • August 2013: Steve Spiker of the Urban Strategies Council and Oakland (then) Councilmember (now Mayor) Libby Schaaf use an open Google Doc at a community meeting to compile notes and ideas as well as accept comments and suggestions to put together a document that would lead to the city’s open data policy, adopted by the Oakland City Council in October 2013.
  • September 2013: San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell puts a draft amendment to the city’s existing open data ordinance on GitHub. Farrell invites public contributions to the policy via the issues queue.
  • January 2014: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilmember Natalia Rudiack introduce an open data ordinance for consideration by the City Council, but also invite residents and stakeholders to review and propose changes to the draft legislation posted online as a public Google Doc in comment mode. The draft receives over 100 comments and suggestions, many of which make their way into the final version of the ordinance, adopted on March 11, 2014.
  • Feb 2014: Chattanooga, Tenn., uses GitHub to post and receive feedback on a draft open data policy previously developed by Open Chattanooga. All in all, there were 48 commits, 14 pull requests and 13 issues closed before mayor Andy Berke signed a refined open data executive order in June.
  • April 2014: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issues an executive order authorizing and directing the CIO to issue an open data policy and also directing and authorizing “regular consult with experts, thought leaders and key stakeholders for the purpose of exploring options for the implementation of policies and practices” related to open data. Interim Boston CIO Justin Holms posts a draft policy on an open Google Doc in comment mode and the city invites feedback from stakeholders and the public.
  • January 2016: Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer posts a “draft open data policy on Drafts.dc.gov, a Madison instance, allowing for annotation and discussion from the public. The draft received 145 comments and 169 annotations from 37 participants before closing for comment at the end of February. Councilman David Grosso also posts his Strengthening Transparency and Open Access to Government Amendment Act of 2016, which includes provision for open data on Drafts.dc.gov.

While the above eight cities might not seem like a wave of crowdlaw practice, it should be noted that open data policy is still a relatively new phenomenon in American cities, first appearing in Washington, D.C., in 2006. With only around 40 open data policies adopted in cities nationwide since that time, the eight listed above represent roughly 20 percent of all municipal open data policies in U.S. If 20 percent of all policy incorporated crowdlaw techniques, we’d be much, much closer to the envisioned opengov future of participatory online policy drafting as the norm.

Open data crowdlaw happening now: Las Vegas

Las Vegas is continuing this trend with the support of the Sunlight Foundation as part of the What Works Cities initiative: The city has recently posted a draft version of its open data policy on Google Docs, seeking public comments until Monday, March 14. Engaging open data users and the community at large were specific goals for the city’s policy update, because they are also goals for the open data program. By putting the draft policy in the public's hands and utilizing this crowdlaw approach, city officials are receiving first-hand feedback about what its citizens truly want out of Las Vegas' open data efforts. And remember to check it out soon — the city is accepting feedback until Monday.


While many cities may not be ready to take their hands off of the wheel and trust the public to help engage in meaningful decisions about public policy, it's encouraging to see some giving it a try when it comes to open data policy. Even for cities still feeling skeptical, this approach can be applied internally; it allows other departments impacted by changes that come about through an open data policy to weigh in, too. Cities can open up varying degrees of the process, retaining as much autonomy as they feel comfortable with. In the end, utilizing the crowdlaw process with open data legislation can increase its effectiveness and accountability by engaging the public directly — a win-win for governments and their citizens alike.