A simple twist on the traditional budgeting process has us paying attention to payoffs for transparency. Participatory budgeting (PB) is a political process that lets members of a community vote on how certain budget funds should be allocated. By including the public in decision-making, PB has the potential to be an agent of accountability, helping to demystify city budgets, to turn voters into active contributors and informed monitors of government progress, and to help support efforts for proactive budget disclosure. As it stands today, PB helps communities explore many of these opportunities, and it serves as an important gateway to engagement with local government for a wide variety of residents, especially traditionally-underrepresented groups. It’s a transformative process -- one that may cost governments almost nothing, since it just reallocates existing funds -- and it's a process we’re eager to see explored in more detail as more and more communities hold a magnifying glass to budgetary data.Continue reading
Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie is signing the nation’s third statewide open data policy into law today (at 11 a.m. HST/5 p.m. EST). The bill, Hawaii House Bill 632, was originally drafted in November 2012, but the open data movement in Hawaii and push for legislation has been chugging along for years now. Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia and Burt Lum, the executive director of Hawaii Open Data, crafted Hawaii’s Open Data Bill to support the data release that has been going on over the last year (via the city’s Socrata-hosted open data portal, currently boasting over 150 datasets) and in concurrence with a larger program that updates the state’s IT infrastructure.Continue reading
Though all appears to be quiet on the public records front in California after a proposed rollback tucked into a budget deal brought an outpouring of criticism and several political dances, the events of last week still haunt the Golden State’s citizens. And rightly so. There are still many unanswered questions about why language weakening public records laws for California cities (by allowing them to “opt out” of records act compliance) was included as part of the budget process.
The budget bill itself cites that requiring local governments to follow those provisions (versus just giving them the option) has financial implications for the state. In 2011, the Commission on State Mandates decided that the state would reimburse local governments for certain public records costs. This decision came from a voter-approved initiative that required the state to repay local governments for state-mandated measures. Perhaps this is why the legislature thought that destabilizing local-records access could be a cost-saving measure, one that simply saved the state money by ensuring that fewer records-related reimbursements have to be paid.
Is the current law really costing the state money though?Continue reading
Whose responsibility is it to pay for access to public records?
The story out of California this week about its public records process, and how the state reimburses local governments for complying with the state's public records act, raises some difficult questions about how states and municipalities interface on certain transparency-related issues. How does a state determine when it owes its local governments for being open to the public? And just how is such a cost calculated? There are many aspects of the public records process that could be given a financial value: staff time, servers, software, paper, ink … and although California seems poised to change its policy of reimbursing local governments for costs related to public records, many questions remain. However the costs of public records are counted, the dollars and cents don’t address whether a state should be financing its local agencies' participation in transparency laws.
The latest news out of a rollercoaster week in California is that the legislature and Governor have responded to the outcry about the proposed slashing of public records requirements for local governments and seem to be in agreement that they will instead maintain the requirements and related funding.Continue reading
States have complex levels of authority over municipalities, but that doesn't stop cities from crafting transparency reforms that lead locally and could impact state operations, too.
This week, Atlanta proved to be a great example of such leadership. The city council unanimously approved an amendment to the open meetings ordinance making it stronger than the language of Georgia's state law.
The events leading up to this change are explained in this story by Matthew Charles Cardinale of Atlanta Progressive News. Cardinale helped draft and push for the legislation after filing a lawsuit challenging closed-door sessions of city council committee meetings. Cardinale argued that there was case law, decided by the Court of Appeals of Georgia, supporting his position that even some meetings without a quorum of members have to be open to the public. State law only explicitly states that meetings with a quorum have to be open.Continue reading
The California legislature is on the brink of cutting local governments loose from compliance to public records requests. If signed... View ArticleContinue reading
Here at Sunlight, we embrace the idea that brilliant work can grow from seeds sown during organically constructed, discussion-driven sessions -- the foundation of any unconference. Our own unconference, TransparencyCamp, has itself yielded the creation of the Brazilian civic hacking group Transparência Hackers and CityCamp, and has served for the launch pad for Waldo Jaquith’s OpenVA, a hub for new data and APIs for Virginia, AbreLatAm, an open data unconference in Uruguay, and even inspiration for Josh Tauberer’s “Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for ‘Open Government Data'”.But what happens when the seed you are trying to plant is legislative change? How do open government unconference attendees (a mix of engaged residents, city officials, and other civic players) help make a legislative seedling grow? What next steps should be taken? Moreover, how can engaged citizens help to promote open data?
We've been thinking about these questions since Alisha Green and Rebecca Williams of Sunlight’s municipal team and Open States lead, James Turk, had the opportunity to sit in on an open data policy brainstorming discussion at CityCampNC in Raleigh, North Carolina, lead by open government guru and Code for America brigade captain, Jason Hibbets, and Raleigh Open Data Manager, Jason Hare. The “Statewide Open Data Policy” session was a popular and well attended one, and took place in every unconference’s coveted spot: the big room. Attendees included software developers, government staff members, members of local civic organizations, and civic hackers. It was a pleasure to see a session focused on open data policy-making because not only would the creation of such a policy directly support the work done at unconferences like CityCampNC, but because such a policy would have the chance to be made stronger by having so many of Raleigh’s relevant open data stakeholders assembled in one place at the same time. Below, we explore some of the strongest takeaways and lessons learned from approaching policy making in an unconference (or similar) setting.Continue reading
On Thursday June 6th at the Personal Democracy Forum (an annual conference exploring technology’s influence on politics and government), New York City’s Comptroller John Liu announced that the code behind Checkbook NYC 2.0, the city's transparency spending web portal, had been open-sourced and made available for forking on Checkbook NYC 2.0's github page. This is significant because (1) Checkbook 2.0 is enormous: it makes over $70 billion dollars in New York City spending available online in a timely, structured, and human-readable form, demonstrating that best practices in data disclosure can be followed even at scale; (2) it marks a shift to proactive civic application-sharing, by the way of the municipality’s desire to share the resources they’ve developed with other local (and even state) governments and NYC’s partnership with common municipal software vendors in this endeavor; and (3) it raises questions about what’s next for government transparency tools, civic software partnerships, and reuse.Continue reading
Releasing zoning data is an important first step to developing a better public understanding about this local government process that impacts the most physical elements of neighborhoods. Having better standards for releasing this information could lead to even better understanding of zoning and its impacts, encouraging more reuse and analysis of the data in apps, news stories and beyond.
While zoning is an especially complex dataset because of its its many variables from city to city, among other reasons, there are a few steps cities could take to improve the quality of this data and its ability to be reused and analyzed. Many of these ideas can be found in our Open Data Policy Guidelines.
1. Mandate timeliness -- Releasing zoning data in a timely manner, and updating it when changes are made, gives people a chance to be aware of and react to changes that might impact them.
2. Use open formats -- Open, structured data helps encourage reuse and analysis, and for zoning data releasing several different kinds of open structured data might be helpful for different levels of users. CSV or XML files are formats that can be used for spreadsheets with zoning information. File formats specific to geospatial software, from shapefiles to GeoJSON, can help encourage the development of more advanced apps and mapping of zoning data.Continue reading
The content, format, and quality of the zoning information municipalities share varies widely. Posting this information online empowers policymakers to better understand the impact of their decisions and allows people to provide accountability on the process. Access to this information can also help people understand what they are or are not allowed to do -- but zoning data, even in an open format, is not always easy to understand. Thankfully, having this data publicly available has also enabled applications and news stories that contextualize the information and show people just how zoning regulations and processes can impact them.
Take a look, for example, at Second City Zoning created by the folks at Open City Apps in Chicago, Illinois. This app breaks down complex zoning regulations into categories that would make sense to someone who's not at all familiar with Chicago's specific codes. Users can look at the city's zoning by type (residential, commercial, or industrial) and by special purpose districts, such as planned development, transportation, parks, and open space. Hovering a computer mouse over any of these categories also reveals a short pop-up explanation of what that category means. Clicking on the interactive map allows users to see what exists on a certain section of land, ranging from parks and playgrounds to shopping centers and tall buildings. Visualizing zoning data in this way enables people to easily see what zoning regulations mean in practice, and it allows them to research how different zoning might lead to a changed landscape. Second City Zoning's About section also has explanations related to the zoning processes and regulations, further empowering users to understand just what this complex dataset can mean in practice.Continue reading