Alisha Green Grey

By Alisha Green • May 7, 2014

Open data policies are quickly spreading across the country as a way for state and local governments to increase transparency, enhance efficiencies, improve service quality, and boost public participation. These policies encourage and, in their best iterations, require proactive disclosure of public information, putting data online for easy access and reuse. Open data policies update the old process of requiring people to ask for access to public records, bringing information sharing in line with the capabilities of current technology.

Last summer, we at the Sunlight Foundation counted fewer than 20 open data policies among states, cities, counties and towns across the country. Now, that number has increased to more than 30 -- and the number continues to rise.

We've been supporting the spread of these policies by assessing new developments and providing resources to aid and improve in-progress efforts at opening data. Our Open Data Policy Guidelines are one key resource in this process. The Guidelines, created in mid-2012, were first updated last summer. We continue to learn from our experiences assessing and aiding open data efforts across the country and, this year, we've updated the Guidelines again to reflect some of those lessons.  

The Guidelines are not just ambitious — they are actionable.

The Guidelines are still structured in a way that aligns with the evolution of open data efforts, addressing questions about what data should be public, how to make data public, and how to implement policy. What's new is some of the organization and explanation of the provisions within those three categories. We believe these changes make the document stronger as a whole and can provide needed guidance for crafting robust open data policies.  

One of the biggest changes is embedding the aspirational "open by default" provision in the framing language for the Guidelines as a whole. We've updated the first provision to spell out this idea in immediately actionable terms, advocating for proactive disclosure of public information. This still embodies the idea of open by default, capturing the principle that people should be able to find information online, where they are already looking for it, rather than having to make a request.

Some of the other major updates include new provisions about the process of prioritizing data for release, asking data managers to recommend language for citing datasets, providing appropriately varied formats for different data uses, and encouraging reuse by making data license-free.

We also expanded on several existing provisions. We made more complete recommendations about creating an inventory of information holdings. The formerly separate provisions about safeguarding sensitive information and using a balance test to do so appropriately have been fused into one provision to emphasize the need for the processes to happen together. The provision is also expanded to encourage access for researchers. The language describing recommended data formats was updated to provide clearer definitions of open formats, machine-readability, and structured data. Examples were added to the provision about oversight authority to help iterate the varied structures that management of open data programs can take. The provision about partnerships was expanded, too, to include more examples of collaborative steps governments can take.

As with our last update to the Guidelines, the newest version includes robust examples of open data policy language. These examples, from all levels of government, show ways the principles embodied in the Guidelines are already being put into practice. The Guidelines are not just ambitious — they are actionable. The ideas are already being implemented successfully around the country, and we're looking forward to seeing more examples as additional communities embrace the need for proactive disclosure of public information.

We're continuing to explore the local landscape of open data and finding ways to support its development. If you'd like to talk about how to bring an open data policy to your community, or improve current open data efforts, please free to contact us at local(at)sunlightfoundation(dot)com. We welcome your input. We hope that, by working together, we can continue the evolution of open data on the local level.