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Tag Archive: municipal data

Boilerplate Open Data Policy and Why It’s a Problem

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In preparation for the revamping of our Open Data Policy Guidelines, we reviewed all twenty-three  of the current local (city, county and state) open data policies on the books since their debut in 2006. These “open data policies” ranged in form from government administrative memos ordering the release of “high-value” datasets to legislation calling for open data policy planning to the newest member of the open data policy family, South Bend, Indiana’s executive order. Our main takeaway: There has been a lot of copying and pasting amongst policies, confusion on common open data terminology, and missed opportunities for information disclosure, but best practices are emerging.

Copying and pasting boilerplate legislative language is as old as law itself. In fact, legal precedent is built on throwbacks, edits, and remixes. The modern day copying and pasting feature has served as a technological blessing in legal matters that require a high level of repetition, such as producing demand letters for common legal claims, or, for one of Sunlight’s favorite exercises of individual rights, completing a public records or freedom of information request. However, when copying and pasting enters more nuanced areas of law, such as contract or legislation drafting, significant complications can arise. Without the proper edits or engaged collaborative thinking required in policy drafting, the ever tempting copy/paste model falls short. Below we explore just how borrowed open data legislative language thus far has been and examples of where it’s been the least helpful.

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OpenGov Voices: 3 simple ways cities can improve access to online information

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee Matt MacDonaldthereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Matt MacDonald is the co-founder and president at NearbyFYI. NearbyFYI collects city government data and documents, helping make local government information accessible and understood. He can be reached at matt@nearbyfyi.com. Matt is also one of the winners of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants.

At NearbyFYI we review online information and documents from hundreds of city and town websites. Our CityCrawler service has found and extracted text from over 100,000 documents for the more than 170 Vermont cities and towns that we track. We're adding new documents and municipal websites all the time, and we wanted to share a few tips that make it easier for citizens to find meeting minutes, permit forms and documents online. The information below is written for a non-technical audience but some of the changes might require assistance from your webmaster, IT department or website vendor.

Create a unique web page for each document or form

Each city or town meeting that occurs should have its own unique web page for agenda items, meeting minutes and other documents. We often see cities and towns creating a single, very large web page that contains an entire year of meeting minutes. This may be convenient for the person posting the meeting minutes online but presents a number of challenges for the citizen who is trying to find a specific meeting agenda or the minutes from that meeting.

Here is an example of meeting minutes that are in a single page that requires the citizen to scroll and scroll to find what they are looking for. This long archived page structure also presents challenges to web crawlers and tools that look to create structured information from the text. Proctor, VT provides a good example for what we look for in a unique meeting minutes document. We like that this document can answer the following questions:

  1. Which town created the document? (Proctor)

  2. What type of document is this? (Meeting Minutes)

  3. Which legislative body is responsible for the document (Selectboard)

  4. When was the meeting? (November 27, 2012 - it's better to use a full date format like this)

  5. Which board members attended the meeting? (Eric, Lloyd, Vincent, Bruce, William)

The only thing that could improve the access to this document is if it was saved as a plain text file rather than a PDF file. Creating a single web page or document for each meeting means that citizens don't have to scan very large documents to find what they are looking for.

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Announcing the Open Data Policy Guidelines, Version 2.0

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As more communities recognize the power and possibilities of sharing public data online, there is an increasing need to articulate what it means to open data -- and how to create policies that can not only support these efforts, but do so in a sustainable and ambitious way. To this end, we are releasing the second version of Sunlight’s Open Data Policy Guidelines. Originally authored last summer and informed by the great work of our peers and allies, the Guidelines are a living document created to help define the landscape of what open data policies can and should do. For this latest version, we’ve reordered and slightly rephrased the Guidelines’ 32 provisions for clarity. We’ve also grouped them into three categories as a way of demonstrating that open data policies can define What Data Should Be Public, How to Make Data Public and How to Implement Policy.

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Announcing a new grant to Sunlight from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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Sunlight is very proud to share the news that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will award us $4 million over the next three years to increase our ability to make more government data more accessible, especially on the state and local level. With this new support, we will focus more on making more government data accessible to more and more people -- not just journalists and experts. This new funding from the Knight Foundation will undoubtedly go a long way toward giving us more resources to make online government transparency a reality, enabling us to continue to build tools to bring that data to the public and share with the growing open government community lessons learned from our work.

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Please Vote for Sunlight’s “Civic Hacking in Pursuit of Democracy” Video

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Here’s an appeal for our readers: please help Sunlight spread the news of the great work civic hackers do as far and wide as possible by voting for our storytelling video in the Looking@Democracy contest organized by the Illinois Humanities Council with support from the MacArthur Foundation. (Voting ends May 16.) We couldn’t wait to tell this (previously) untold story through a short video to demonstrate how the nascent movement of civic hackers are creating apps and tools using open government data to make their communities better. These men and women are equipped with laptops, open data and creative ideas to positively reconstruct the way we relate with government.

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