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By Emily Shaw

At the Sunlight Foundation we aim to help all governments achieve improved openness, especially where openness can be increased through putting government information online. Our work on municipal-level open data initiatives has represented one major way for us to achieve that objective. For the past year and a half, the Sunlight Foundation’s local team has been providing resources to state, county, and municipal governments on the subject of open data policies – helping governments develop policies on what data to make public, how to make their data public, and how to properly implement their policy to allow them to realize their open data goals. In the interest of providing even more information to people who are contemplating an open data policy initiative, we’ve developed a new resource to answer governments’ most frequently asked questions about open data policies. Sunlight’s Open Data FAQ is intended to help advocates and officials get their most common questions about open data answered without requiring them to even pick up a phone (or compose a message). 

While we’ve developed other resources – ranging from our set of guidelines for developing open data policies to an overview of the kind of benefits that open data initiatives can produce – we’ve fielded enough questions from government officials at hearings or on phone calls to observe that some come up relatively frequently. While individual officials are often quite excited about the possibilities inherent in open data policies, governments as a whole tend to be risk-averse and so they want to know first about potential downsides. They wonder, “How much will this great new thing cost? Will it expose us to new forms of liability?” Our close communication with people working on open data policies all across the country and our observation of early adopters’ experiences allowed us to answer these questions with a review of existing information and best practices.

Meanwhile, government officials are not only asking about risks – some just want more specifics about the process. Some of them want greater practical details, such as how one goes about transferring data from a closed to open data platform.  Some of them are interested in knowing how to construct a Terms of Use that doesn’t interfere with the openness of their data. Our FAQ aims to provide a first-level response to questions about staffing, whether those questions concern oversight for the policy’s implementation or the management of responsibility for any new workload stemming from an open data initiative. Responding to another popular practical question: while we don’t specifically recommend an open data platform, we do offer a list of portal providers and platforms that governments might consider.

While our new FAQ surely does not answer all of the questions governments and open data activists might have, we’re hoping that this resource will provide a good first-level response to the questions that frequently arise in the early stages of open data policy development. However, just because we have posted an FAQ doesn’t mean we’re not still happy to respond to any question you might have about open data. We also hope you’ll keep getting in touch with us to tell us more about about your efforts to bring open data to your own community. When we learn about what’s happening where you are, we can share your challenges and victories with other places as well. We look forward to continuing to hear — and learn— from you!

 

Homepage image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Veronique Debord.

About the Author

Emily Shaw

Emily Shaw is the Deputy Policy Director at the Sunlight Foundation, where she helps the organization lead the charge to make useful public information available online. Emily writes and speaks regularly on topics related to public data access. She has presented before a wide variety of local and national audiences and regularly provides insights to media outlets across the country. Before coming to the Sunlight Foundation, Emily served as a professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine. She has worked for a range of civil and human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Emily holds a Ph.D. in Political Science (UC Berkeley).

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