The Year in Local Open Data

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open data diagram
Photo by Sunlight friend Justin Grimes

This was a landmark year for local open data. In 2013 there were 13 new open data policies (or major updates to existing policies) at the state and local level across the country, spanning from Hawaii to New Hampshire. That means more than half of the existing U.S. local open data policies have been passed or updated in the last year. It’s a major win for local transparency, as cities, counties, states and towns express their commitment to proactively sharing information online in a way that encourages access, analysis and reuse.

When we started our local program at the beginning of 2013 with a grant from Google.org, we couldn’t have predicted just how big of a leap open data would take this year. We were enthusiastic from the start of our local program about working with cities of all sizes, recognizing that a great number of municipalities in the United States have populations of fewer than 10,000 people — and a majority of those have populations lower than 500. Now there are cities across the size spectrum with open data initiatives, reflecting the diversity of city sizes in the country. New York City, with a population of more than 8 million, has long held the title for being the largest U.S. city with an open data policy. This year, South Bend, Ind., became the smallest U.S. city to have an open data policy with a population of roughly 100,000.

South Bend’s policy was crafted with our input and passed less than one month after the launch of our updated Open Data Policy Guidelines. With additional best practice language and a new provision emphasizing the importance of setting the default to open, our updated guidelines have been a major resource for some of the new and updated policies this year. Louisville became the first city to set the default to open with their policy. Oakland drew on public input in the drafting process for their policy. We also saw policies pass in Tulsa, Okla., West Sacramento, Calif., Honolulu and Los Angeles this year.

San Francisco advanced its open data policy twice this year, passing an amendment in March and another amendment just this month. With these two updates, the city’s open data efforts are in their fourth iteration, showing commitment to continually expanding the potential for openness there.

Cities aren’t the only ones advancing on the open data front. Utah, New York, Hawaii and New Hampshire all passed open data policies this year. State policies have potential to inspire and open up opportunities for more city-level efforts, too. From the beginning of our work, we have acknowledged the complex relationship between states and municipalities state laws can deeply impact the ability of local governments to set their own regulations, after all.

The open data progress this year goes beyond policies, too. Transparency has taken great strides forward with open data as part of other government efforts. The Washington, DC council unanimously approved campaign finance reforms that will require electronic filing and sharing of information online. Sunlight advocated for this language that will help open up crucial information about who is funding campaigns in DC. Sunlight has also contributed input to ongoing open government efforts in DC.

Many cities have made headlines this year for general open data efforts. People took notice of New York City when Checkbook NYC 2.0 code became open source in June, and Los Angeles followed with a checkbook platform in October. New York City and Chicago sparked attention with efforts to catalog their datasets.

States took some open data headlines, too, for better or worse. Texas had a big breakthrough by making legislative communications open by default, available to the public online. California, meanwhile, tried to weaken local public records processes but reversed course after a large outcry from the public, media and local governments themselves.

With a few big steps forward, the profile of open data has risen greatly across the country. This year we’ve seen local government candidates being asked about transparency and local governments so eager to have an open data policy that they are sometimes copying and pasting open data policy language.

With all these shifts in the landscape, we’re working to keep track of it in one central location. Our open data policy page tracks existing policies with a handy map and lists where policies are in the works. The page also links to resources for crafting policies, including the guidelines and analysis of all the existing open data policies. We’ve also created resources that help tackle challenges in talking about open data and have looked at how to open up specific datasets with our “Data Deep Dives.” We even have a Sunlight Cities Tumblr where you can track all the latest open data developments, uses of local data, and more.

We are excited about the advances open data made this year, and we’re happy to have played a role. It is thrilling to see communities across the country recognizing the value of open data in their local context, crafting a wide range of policies that support opening up information to the public online. We hope to see this trend continue in 2014, and we will continue to be be an advocate and resource for these efforts.

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