Open data is the next iteration of public records

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Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Sunshine Week is here, and with it people across the country are discussing ways to improve access to information.

These kinds of discussions traditionally revolved around public records laws such as the Freedom of Information Act at the federal level and similar laws at the state and local level. The way we think about public records is changing, though, along with advances in technology. That’s where the open data movement shows how government can rise to a higher standard of information sharing, empowering more of the accountability journalism and watchdog activity that Sunshine Week aims to support.

Open data is about the proactive, online release of government information. It takes traditional government approaches to public records forward by realizing the opportunities provided by technological advances. Open data demands the proactive release of information, the opposite of the reactive system of asking for public records. Technology makes the proactive approach possible: it is increasingly easy to post information online, where people are already looking for it.

Accessing information about government no longer has to mean going to a building and requesting permission to sift through paper documents. It doesn’t even have to mean writing a letter, filling out a complex form, or trying to figure out who to contact about public records or how to access records in the first place.

Technology has enabled faster, more efficient and more user-friendly access to government information — to public information — and governments across the country are increasingly embracing this opportunity in their policies and practices. One way to do this is to adopt open data policies that build on precedent set by existing policy like public records laws.

Some governments are already taking this step and showing the way forward. Open data policies like the ones in South Bend, Ill., and Louisville, Ky., build on public records laws by referencing them directly. Open data policies don’t have to be separate, though. Public records laws can be updated directly to embrace the new standard of proactive rather than reactive disclosure. In Alaska, for example, proposed legislation would update the state’s public records law to create a central portal for accessing electronic versions of public records.

Imagine no longer struggling against complex systems for access to public records. That’s the goal of open data.

It’s clear that the way we think about access to information is undergoing a fundamental shift, and there are great benefits that can come of it. It would be naive and dishonest, however, to say that all of the challenges of access will be gone.

One common challenge to access comes from determining what information should be public.┬áThere are times when it is necessary for government to withhold information that might be sensitive for a variety of reasons. It’s a principle that has been exploited at times, unfortunately, making events like Sunshine Week critical. Sunshine Week’s roots are in the fight over exemptions to public records laws, and the event continues to raise awareness about exemptions issues and other challenges in accessing public records. Debates about what exemptions are necessary or appropriate will almost certainly continue. That’s why, even as governments embrace the principles of open data and public records become easier to access, it will be important to remain watchful. The public must continue to scrutinize what information is not being proactively disclosed and why. Safeguarding sensitive information should be done with a balance test that asks whether the potential harm from releasing certain information outweighs the public interest in disclosure. If the public knows what information the government has, it can assess whether the balance test is being properly implemented. For this reason and more, events like Sunshine Week that raise awareness about public records will continue to be fundamental to ensuring the proactive release of government information is living up to its full potential.

These challenges deserve important consideration, but they should not be an impediment to embracing proactive disclosure and the numerous benefits of open data. We know it may not be an easy or fast process. We understand there are real concerns and obstacles along the way. Governments can start taking steps forward, though.

They must.

The future of public records is already here.