How Bethlehem PA wrote its own open data policy—and you can, too

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Bethlehem City Council. Photo via The Morning Call.

It doesn’t take a huge staff or financial investment to start publishing open city data. Just ask Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bethlehem used Sunlight’s Open Data Policy wizard to create a draft open data policy. In November 2017, the city passed its first open data ordinance. We are always excited to see cities using our tools, and were curious to know why Bethlehem’s leaders support an open approach to city data, and how it fits into the city’s broader priorities.

“Bethlehem has the same story as a lot of American cities,” said Bethlehem City Councilmember J. William Reynolds, in a phone interview with Sunlight. “Bethlehem Steel was our major employer and they basically built the middle class here. As the steel began to decline 25 years ago or so we began to ask ourselves, ‘What are we going to be in the 21st century?’ The city is changing and becoming more diverse, not just demographically but also economically and in our financial sectors. Health networks and institutions of higher education are our biggest employers now.”

The city has changed over the last decade, but Reynolds and his colleagues on the city council have seen recurring themes and have recognized that greater transparency on the part of government could help change those conversations.

“I’m in my 11th year on the city council. For years I’ve heard similar complaints and misconceptions about what the city government does. I’ve also thought a lot about how to get young people and people who care about the community more involved. As city councilmembers, we always need positivity from people to help the city move forward. That was probably the first reason why I got interested in open data.”

Reynolds first learned about open data from leaders he knows in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under Mayor Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh has become a leading city on open data, making strong policy commitments, working with collaboratively community partners, and connecting data to real applications and needs. Reynolds knew staff in the Peduto administration and heard from them about that city’s open data work.

“I started watching what Pittsburgh was doing with open data, and saw how it brought all different departments together. I realized it could make Bethlehem more transparent as well as more efficient, and that would make all of our jobs easier. I also realized that we were behind the curve as far as what other cities were doing.”

Reynolds set out to create an open data program for Bethlehem. Like many cities, he had few resources with which to make it happen. Sunlight’s Open Data Policy Wizard is quick, easy, and free, and provides cities with policy language they can adopt or tailor.

“Once the council agreed that this was a priority, the first thing we did was look at other cities’ ordinances and see what other cities had done. We did a lot of research, and one of the things we found was Sunlight’s Policy Wizard. We used that to form the basis of our draft open data policy and in the fall of 2017 we passed it in to law.”

With a policy in place, Reynolds and the staff in Bethlehem city hall are now working to publish their first dataset. They’re navigating a number of technical questions as they do, but to Reynolds the potential rewards are worth it.

“One of the exciting things to me about open data is that it allows people to uncap different areas of our society, work to solve community problems, small businesses entrepreneurs, the tech sector, all different areas. Government has all sorts of data that when you turn it over to the right people they can do things with it that I can’t even explain right now because I don’t know. That’s one of the great things. I’m not sure what the best way for it to be used and I think that’s probably the best answer we can have.”

Sunlight’s Open Data Policy wizard can get your city started on a path to publishing open data of its own. Congrats to Bethlehem on getting started down this path! If you live in Bethlehem and have question about the city’s open data program or datasets that you would like to see opened, email the city clerk to get involved.

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