What makes Pittsburgh’s open data law different

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto, policy manager Matt Barron, analytics and strategy manager Laura Meixell and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak discussing their new open data ordinance.

Last Tuesday, March 11, 2014, Pittsburgh joined the growing number of cities (and counties and states) who have adopted open data policies across the United States. So, how does Pittsburgh’s open data policy stack up to the other policies already out there? And what makes it different?

How does Pittsburgh’s policy stack up

Pittsburgh’s open data law explicitly touches upon (if not adopts outright) more than half of the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Guidelines. The open data legislation includes some of the things that we have come to expect from open data policies, such as: a basis in open government community values, a requirement that public open government data should be posted online, a specification for open standards, a management structure for the release of data and a call for additional guidance to be created to assist government departments in releasing data. In including these elements, Pittsburgh’s policy represents a substantial improvement over other adopted policies which fail to address these important considerations.

Pittsburgh also goes the next step by framing this policy as a call to proactively release all information available under the Pittsburgh’s Right-to-Know law (see its agency discretion and exceptions here), calling each department to make “comprehensive inventories of information possessed and/or managed by the Department” (or “Data Catalogue”), requiring an annual Open Data Report with a plan to maintain and improve data quality, and mandating review of the policy. Much of the Guidelines not touched on explicitly in the legislative language (such as mandating the use of unique identifiers, requiring the digitization and distribution of archival materials, publishing bulk data, creating public APIs for accessing information and optimizing methods for data collection) will presumably be addressed by the Open Data Management Team’s implementation and review of the policy.

What makes Pittsburgh’s policy different

One of the things that makes the language of Pittsburgh’s open data policy different from the others out there today is that it explicitly cites potential regional partnerships as an incentive for its inception:

WHEREAS, The Greater Pittsburgh region shares common infrastructure, economy, and history, so sharing information freely and collaboratively will bring greater success for all area municipalities and citizens. The City of Pittsburgh seeks to be a leader and convener in our region around issues of data sharing and best practices.

A variety of partnerships have been articulated in policies past, and regionalism specifically was mentioned in Cook County’s Open Government policy (as well as in Portland, Honolulu and Lexington’s policies) but it is nonetheless worth mentioning. As we see more open data initiatives and policies pop up, we will continue to monitor how cities, counties and states are sharing data, as well as noting evolving best practices for releasing data. Other hot spots to keep an eye on include: Chicago, Cook County, Ill. and the state of Illinois; Honolulu and Hawaii; New York City and New York; Montgomery County and Maryland; as well as the growing cluster of cities in California (San Francisco, Oakland, West Sacramento, Palo Alto and San Diego) which have either executed or are exploring open data initiatives. [As always, see a full list of policies here, and portals here.]

Pittsburgh’s policy also uniquely calls for their Open Data Management Team to create a licensing agreement:

(c) The Open Data Management Team shall develop a licensing agreement for published information that shall ensure the unrestricted use and redistribution of public information by all parties, while providing that information used to generate reports or applications must be made available in-kind.

Unfortunately, to date, many open data policies have been silent on this matter and left licensing issues to the terms of service on the data portal. While terms of service are necessary to frame data use, explicitly calling for data that is as reusable as possible is an integral part of defining open data and should be mandated in the policy itself.

One of the major hurdles to releasing relevant government information is that much of it is managed by the vendors that supply services to governments. To address this, Pittsburgh calls on their Open Data Management team to create a set of policies for their procurement process in order to ensure that open data requirements are included in obtaining new contacts:

(d) The Open Data Management Team shall develop policies to amend existing procurement, contracting, or planning processes to create new defaults and requirements for IT systems and databases to ensure that open data requirements are included in new systems as they are being planned.

Lastly, the city of Pittsburgh was well positioned to learn from other jurisdictions before it in their creation of their open data policy. For example, Pittsburgh, like Oakland, Cambridge, Chattanooga and Maryland, provided their open data policy bill language for public input throughout the legislative process. To get public input into their process, the city held an Open Data Public Hearing that pulled in speakers from both the local and national community of data-users. This collaborative process and use of best practice language helped create a thoughtful policy that other jurisdictions can now look to as they create their own policies.