A closer look at the problem of open data policy that isn’t open

file folders filled with paper on shelves
In an ironic twist, many open data policies are stuck in difficult-to-access formats. (Photo credit: Marino González/Flickr)

Earlier today, we announced Open Data Policies Decoded, a new web resource to help communities across the country find and share their open data best practices.

We developed this tool to help address a specific problem: Most cities do not yet have an open data policy, and even among those that do, it is often the case that that policy is difficult to find — or even nowhere to be found — online. As we explained in our previous post: Ironically, open data policy is not open.

Baltimore, for instance, passed an open data executive order in 2011 as well as a City Council ordinance in 2016, and while it is technically possible to find the latter by digging through the city’s Legistar portal (itself hard to find), there is no trace of the executive order anywhere on the city’s website.

When open data policy is in fact made available online, with few exceptions, it is not being shared as open data. For instance, while Austin, Texas, Hartford, Conn., and Asheville, N.C., are all examples of cities with strong open data programs and policies — the kind that other cities might be keen to replicate and learn from — these cities are unfortunately also all-too-typical examples of the lackluster manner in which open data policies are often made public. Austin’s 2013 Open Government Directive, Hartford’s 2014 executive order and Asheville’s open data resolution — despite being important reform documents about open access to public information — are each only available online as a scanned-image file, a format which cannot be easily searched, discovered, machine-processed, analyzed, edited or even simply copied-and-pasted.

Some cities, like Minneapolis or Philadelphia, or Chattanooga do better than scanned-image files, publishing open data policy as searchable PDF or better yet as HTML or Markdown. But even in these slightly more accessible formats where copying and pasting into a word processor is easier, functionality is still limited and analysis requires intermediary steps. Only a very select few cities share their open data policies in more truly open structured formats; for instance, you can access San Francisco’s 2010 policy in State Decoded XML, thanks to the city’s participation in the America Decoded initiative.

The file format of open data policies shared online by U.S. cities.
The lack of the availability of truly open open data policies poses a significant barrier to Sunlight’s goal of helping good policy reform ideas to spread, as well as to the goals of many innovative public officials attempting to launch or improve open data initiatives backed by a strong public commitment. Ultimately, open data policy that isn’t open hurts citizens most, putting up unnecessary barriers between their communities and the efficient, effective and responsive governments they deserve. When good-governance policy ideas (like those in Austin, Hartford or Asheville) are harder to discover and reuse, we have fewer instances of good-governance policy in the world. It’s as simple as that.

Widespread absence of open and accessible law and other policy documents is a problem across the board and one that our friends at the OpenGov Foundation have written about extensively. While we, like OpenGov, firmly believe in open access to all policy documents, lack of accessibility is especially glaring in the context of Sunlight’s specific focus on open data reform: If the very policies that themselves state that government information will be proactively disclosed online in useful open data formats are not being proactively disclosed online in useful open data formats, then what hope do we have for open access to the law generally?