Today in OpenGov: House to vote on FOIA reform


WITNESSING HISTORY: The U.S House of Representatives will vote on S.337 (The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016) today under Suspension of the Rules. This is incredibly good news to share with you. Reforming FOIA has been a pillar of the Sunlight Foundation’s agenda in Washington for the past decade. While the bill isn’t perfect, we are thrilled that the House is moving to vote on the FOIA Improvement Act and look forward to celebrating President Barack Obama signing it into law. Passing this bill is a critical step toward building a more transparent, accountable and functional FOIA system.

Codifying the presumption of openness into law would be an important achievement in advance of the transition to a new administration. In our age of overclassification, secrecy and historic lows in trust in government, the nation must move further toward proactive disclosure of government information online wherever and whenever possible while protecting privacy and national security equities. We join OpenTheGov, EPIC and 27 other organizations in urging the House to make strengthening open government part of the legacy of the 114th Congress. [READ THE LETTER]


  • EFF called the OPEN Government Data Act a “great step for government transparency.Sunlight agrees! [EFF]
  • On Friday, the House voted against an effort to reduce the funding for the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). As former Sunlighter Daniel Schuman explained for Demand Progress, the independent congressional watchdog has played an important role in its relatively short history and should be strengthened, not weakened. “In particular, the House should grant OCE the power to subpoena documents and witnesses, so it can obtain answers to its questions. Currently, witnesses can simply stonewall the watchdog, secure in the knowledge that the Ethics Committee will do its best to undermine OCE and ignore its investigations.” [Medium]
  • The administrator of the Food and Drug Administration proposed an database of preclinical research involving animals or living cells information, similar to “…[S]uch a repository could be useful, Califf suggested, to help solve two interconnected problems plaguing biomedical research: lack of transparency and an inability to reproduce blockbuster research results.” [StatNews]
  • A coalition of public interest groups rolled out an internet policy platform for presidential candidates focused on free speech, access, choice, privacy, transparency and openness. These are all values and principles that Sunlight supports and advocates for in public policy, particularly the latter two, but the devil is always in the details. Whether or not the public will put tech policy ahead of economic issues, foreign policy, the environment, healthcare or education is another matter, although the internet now plays an indisputable role in all of those areas. [Guardian]
  • Companies are considering how FOIA can be used to challenge EPA decisions. [Bloomberg BNA]
  • The State Department said that its FOIA officers didn’t know — and didn’t ask — about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address for public business. [Washington Post]
  • Sanford Ungar, a member of the Public Interest Declassification Board at the National Archives, argues that increasing overclassification of information poses a huge challenge to keeping the public informed about what’s being done in our name. He recommends two strategies to address the issue: prioritization and machine learning, where software works through the process. [Washington Post]

State and Local


  • Sunlight launched a new section of our website dedicated to supporting public policy for public data. When you visit, you’ll find a checklist and resource guide for creating an open data policy for a city. “Originally written for internal use to guide our team and coordinate with our What Works Cities partners, the Public Policy for Public Data Checklist collects and connects our city-focused research, guides and other resources through a step-by-step playbook for creating open data policy,” writes Sunlight’s Open Data Lead Stephen Larrick. “It’s an animated checklist of our work with city halls, covering everything from why a policy is important and where to start to what to do after your policy has passed.”

    Please check it out, kick the wheels, tell us what you think and share it with your local government officials. [Sunlight]

  • Relatedly, 12 more cities joined What Works Cities: Baltimore, Md.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cape Coral, Fla.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Greensboro, N.C.; Gresham, Ore.; Kansas City, Kan.; Naperville, Ill.; Providence, R.I.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Topeka, Kan.; and Wichita, Kan.

    Sunlight’s Lavita Tuff:

    With Sunlight’s help, many of this next round of cities, such as Fort Lauderdale and Topeka, will be implementing open data initiatives for the first time. Others, such as Greensboro, will be looking to refine existing open data efforts. In Witchita, we’re excited to be working with a city that has even put its open data policy draft online — a practice we’re excited to see happening more and more across the country — through a partnership with our friends at the OpenGov Foundation. Every city is at a different point along this path to making more data accessible and available to the public, and each will take a slightly different approach to open data. But through WWC, they’ll all have access to a network of organizations and other city leaders who are also using data to tackle problems in their communities.

  • Rebecca Synder argues that government procurement requires transparency and public notice. We agree! [Delaware State News]
  • The Ohio State Court is considering whether the public has a right to see video captured by police dashcams and bodycams. [My Dayton Daily News]
  • The Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled that the Legislative Privilege Act does not provide a total exemption for the D.C. Council from the public access requirements outlined in the District’s Freedom of Information Act. [DC OGC]


  • Dozens of civil society organizations around the globe called on the World Bank to restore its access to information unit. [Open Government Partnership]
  • The next frontier for access to information around the world is disclosure of code. It won’t be legal code, although free access to the law in democracies remains a critical aspect of justice globally. It’s software code. Why? As Nick Diakopoulus explains, software now mediates critical questions throughout society:

    In criminal justice systems, credit markets, employment arenas, higher education admissions processes and even social media networks, data-driven algorithms now drive decision-making in ways that touch our economic, social and civic lives. These software systems rank, classify, associate or filter information, using human-crafted or data-induced rules that allow for consistent treatment across large populations.But while there may be efficiency gains from these techniques, they can also harbor biases against disadvantaged groups or reinforce structural discrimination. In terms of criminal justice, for example, is it fair to make judgments on an individual’s parole based on statistical tendencies measured across a wide group of people? Could discrimination arise from applying a statistical model developed for one state’s population to another, demographically different population?

    To test the state of access to code in the United States, Diakopoulus’ media law students submitted FOIA requests for “documents, mathematical descriptions, data, validation assessments, contracts and source code related to algorithms used in criminal justice, such as for parole and probation, bail or sentencing decisions” in all 50 states. In response, they received “only one mathematical description of a criminal justice algorithm: Oregon disclosed the 16 variables and their weights in a model used there to predict recidivism.” [The Conversation]

  • France is already grappling with the issue of access to public code, as Claire-Marie Foulquier-Gazagnes at Etalab reminded me at TransparencyCamp EU. After Adrien Fabre requested France’s tax software, France released the source code to the public. Now, a student association has requested the source code for the algorithm used in college admissions. Some French ministries are now considering proactively releasing source code in advance of requests. Now, that‘s an idea worth spreading.
  • Sikkim claims to be the first state in India to launch an open government data portal. [ET Telecom]
  • 51 National Open Government Action plans are due on June 30th. Here are 10 tools to help nations develop them. [OGP]
  • Here’s one: Take substantive steps to protect journalists and free expression, both of which are under threat around the world. [The Economist]

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