It was another year full of encouraging news on the open data front in states and municipalities across the country. New open data policies were approved in municipalities of all sizes from coast to coast, existing open data programs matured and sparked new innovations, and there were numerous other open government wins as a result of advocacy efforts. Here’s a look back at the year’s highlights.
A growing number of strong open data policies
2013 was a landmark year for the adoption of open data policies, and 2014 built on that momentum. There are now 50 open data policies at the state and municipal level across the country. There were 19 new state and municipal policies adopted this year, and four existing open data policies were updated and improved. All five of the largest cities in the U.S. now have open data policies, and small and mid-sized cities are increasingly joining the movement for open data. Bloomington, Ill., with a population of fewer than 78,000; Jackson Mich., with a population under 34,000; and Williamsville, N.Y., with a population of fewer than 6,000, all adopted open data policies in 2014, showing that smaller communities can and should embrace the benefits open data can bring.
The communities adopting open data are finding ways to build on the success of those who came before them in this space. Boston’s new open data policy, for example, encourages the Chief Information Officer overseeing implementation to work with people across departments and issue additional guidance, building a strong foundation for moving forward with buy-in across government. Pittsburgh’s new open data policy follows more than half of the best practices for open data.
Even governments with open data policies already in place are seizing the opportunity to iterate and make improvements. Washington, D.C., the first local government we identified as having an open data policy, updated its policy this year with an executive directive from the mayor. The city made several important improvements, and though it still has plenty of room for growth, we hope it will continue to iterate its policy to include more best practices.
Other places have worked on updating their guidance supporting existing open data policies. NYC updated its open data plan that complements the policy, committing to releasing more data but also prompting some questions. Montgomery County, Md., released an implementation plan that outlines the prioritization process used for releasing datasets and shares insights on the steps taken to complete an inventory of datasets. Philadelphia showed its open data growth, too, with the release of a new Strategic Plan outlining how it will approach its inventory and prioritization process, accompanied by a revamped public-facing method for tracking all of the progress.
Widespread transparency wins
There has been open government progress this year at the state and municipal level beyond open data policies, too. New York City is beating the feds to modernizing transparency by putting public information online. We looked into Philadelphia’s updated lobbying portal and found improvements since our last review that are resulting in more open data. We kept a watchful eye on California’s vote on the public records law, which came after a failed attempt last year to roll back public records requirements at the municipal level. The approval of the amendment to the state’s Constitution means municipalities will have to continue to comply with the state’s public records law. That change could open the door for broad open data movement across the state, too, if open data is written into the public records law.
There is certainly no lack of momentum among California groups hoping to see the state improve its open data. We joined a coalition of groups calling for open data improvements to California’s influence data portal, Cal-Access. Improvements to that system could help shine more light on campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics disclosures data.
California wasn’t alone in tackling bad policies this year. In a huge win for transparency, an examination of the openness of executive orders in all 50 states led to a deeper look into the case of the disappearing executive orders in Georgia and, ultimately, the restoration of those orders online.
We also examined limited liability donations and corporate registry access in Texas and Washington, finding that states vary drastically when it comes to how they deal with disclosing information about campaign donations.
Several efforts this year built on work from previous years. We continued our initial exploration of how federal levers might help municipalities be more open with their financial data. We gathered a group of people to ask the federal agency collecting a significant amount of municipal financial data to consider open data best practices after wondering whether the agency could play a role in that openness. We first became interested after receiving an encouraging comment from the agency around open data recommendations.
Federal open data improvements are poised to help with this issue, too. The passage of the DATA Act earlier this year will help improve the transparency of state and municipal grants from the federal government. It’s an important step toward better transparency of state and municipal finances.
Beyond financial data, we explored other specific kinds of open data. We took a look at the progress of open legislative data at all levels of government around the country. Opening up legislative data is helping people access more information about proposed bills and existing law, empowering them to be more informed participants in government processes.
We explored the intersection of open data with other areas that can support open government, too. Our efforts throughout 2014 included advocating for getting serious about protecting access to public emails, describing what the federal government could learn from the state and municipal electronic-filing efforts, looking at the need for updating public records tools to include more open data concepts, exploring the intersection of police accountability and open data, showing how government- and community-run public records portals are helping bring open data concepts to the public records process, examining how proactive release of public records could lower costs, and sharing recommendations for strengthening open meetings with open data.
We took a deep look at the intersection of public records, records management, and open data, including the future of storing and sharing records, addressing the costs of turning public records into open data, the need to balance records management and open data when it comes to liabilities, how good records management helps open data. We pointed out that open data is the next iteration of public records — which means public records advocates and open data advocates should be working together, leveraging their skills, insights, and shared interests to create improvements
Building resources to support the movement
Increased open data adoption and improved open government practices have come about through research, advocacy, and the sharing of best practices. Sunlight has developed and continues expanding on a wide variety of resources to help with these efforts.
Education about the benefits of open data is part of what is helping drive forward adoption. Our Impacts of Open Data document highlights the range of potential benefits to government and the public from open data, including increasing transparency, empowering accountability, enhancing efficiency and leading to cost savings, improving service quality, and increasing public participation. The document is also available in Spanish, thanks to the work of Sunlight friend and open government advocate Iris Palma
Of course, open data policies and programs cannot achieve their full potential without being strongly written and implemented. Sunlight’s Open Data Policy Guidelines, originally crafted in 2012, were revamped this year to help with those processes. The corresponding examples for best practices — including narrative examples and policy language — were expanded to reflect the range of approaches to crafting and implementing strong open data policies. The updated guidelines now include a look at the different kinds of oversight authorities, the need for a balance test to appropriately safeguard sensitive information while releasing as much as possible, prioritization processes for data release, and more.
Building on the foundation of the Guidelines, the Open Data FAQ page answers specific questions about open data policy drafting and implementation, aiming to help the processes be as informed as possible.
To help inspire action and engagement around open data and tools for exploring open data, we crafted a civic toolkit to help engage the next generation of leaders.
The US City Open Data Census, a collaboration between Sunlight, Open Knowledge, and Code for America, is another resource for staying informed about open data around the country. It tracks the technical openness of datasets in cities where a non-government community member has volunteered to do that assessment.
And, of course, we’ve been continually updating and expanding resources including the open data map listing all of the U.S. open data policies, the GitHub repository for additional resources, and our Sunlight Cities Tumblr, highlighting fun, important, and innovative open data visualizations and stories from around the country. We even refreshed the hub of our local work to help bring all these resources together and make them easy to find.
It’s been a great year for open data and open government across the country, and we believe there is always room for improvement. We built upon the great progress made in 2013 to advance open data in states and municipalities of all sizes, helping them craft and implement policies that fit the local context, and we look forward to continuing and growing that work going ahead.
We’re sure 2015 will bring further advances for open data and broader open government wins. There are sure to be more challenges, too, and we’ll be ready to take those on, working with government staff and officials as well as community advocates and stakeholders to bring greater transparency to local governments.