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From Unconference Session to Open Data Policy

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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.

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A Look at Utah’s Future in Open Data

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Open data policies can come in different shapes, sizes, and strengths. The most common and idealized form aims to mandate or direct energy toward open data specifically (reflected in the recent wave of municipal referendums). Another takes the focus off of open data, and instead tucks related provisions into policies for other issue areas (a neat example is this (now tabled) Viriginia education bill, introduced in January). The open data legislation passed yesterday by Utah reflects a third form: the mandated plan. We’ve seen this model before, most recently in Montgomery County, MD. In essence, this sort of legislation directs a particular agency (or, in Utah’s case, overhauls a snoozing Transparency Advisory Board) to study and make recommendations for online, best practice data disclosure. Although it’s easy to think of these policies as a punt, this sort of reallocation of attention, time, and expertise can actually be a move to stabilize and ensure thoughtful implementation and real enforcement of an open data agenda -- so long as it’s executed well, actually moves from planning to action, and operates start to finish within the public’s eye. Utah’s Board will be one to watch, with a unique combination of state agency actors, legislators, archivists, technologists, county and municipal reps, and two members of the public. It’s a team that hints at greater ambitions for Utah’s approach to future online publication of data, one that seems to be looking, at least tentatively, outside the State House and towards Utah’s local governments. But we won’t know for sure until the board turns around its first series of recommendations, due by November 30, 2013.

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