Open Data Policy Guidelines, Updated for a Changing Technology Landscape

By Laurenellen McCann • September 17, 2013

Laurenellen McCann is the Sunlight Foundation's National Policy Manager.

Technology changes, and so too must policy. From the White House to Hawaii, governments all over the country are making concerted efforts to bring their policies up to date with the quickly changing technology landscape — and, in particular, to explore sharing public data online. This year alone, six different state and local governments passed open data policies -- a considerable portion of the 19 total that have been enacted since 2006. And there are plenty more coming. As open data creeps towards becoming a household name and more and more communities recognize its potential, there is an increasing need to articulate what it means to open data -- and to discuss the range of what open data policies can and should do.

To this end, we at the Sunlight Foundation recently released an update to our Open Data Policy Guidelines. Originally authored last summer in response to the rise in government open data initiatives, the Guidelines are a living document created to help policymakers and data advocates explore what’s possible within the framework of opening up public information. The updated Guidelines help better address three important categories fundamental to crafting open data policies: what data should be public, how to make data public, and how to implement policy.

At its heart, open data is about making public information more accessible to the public, and that means setting the default to open.

Over the past year, the Guidelines have served as the foundation for not only our ongoing analysis of open data policies, but also for numerous new policies in places like Utah, Montgomery County, Maryland, and even South Bend, Indiana. With this summer’s update, we hope the Guidelines will prove even easier to use for government officials, community organizers, and anyone who wants to advocate for changing policy to help open up information. To this end, we’ve added more sample language to the Guidelines’ 32 provisions, and more examples from all levels of government, but especially states and cities, of where these best practices are in place.

Rather than crafting a single, all-encompassing model policy, we opted to craft the Guidelines so they could be just that — a guide. By providing effectively a menu of policy language, we hope to support a variety of political needs and contexts, from general “Open Data” executive orders and legislation to efforts to include open data language in a wide range of policies outside the traditional scope of tech policy. Its structure also better serves those, like San Francisco, who seek to update existing policies by closing gaps rather than implementing something entirely new (an act we consider a best practice in and of itself).

Although we drew heavily from existing initiatives inside and out of government for this update, we also used this revision to underscore one of the most important themes we think these policies should — and over time, will — address: proactive disclosure. At its heart, open data is about making public information more accessible to the public, and that means setting the default to open, to sharing public information where the public looks for it (online), before it’s requested, with low to no barriers for its reuse and consumption. At a time when government websites have become a primary means of engagement for many constituents, proactive sharing is not only easier, but benefits public servants, too, many of whom are either overloaded with requests or feeling the burn of expenditures on paper and administrative costs. While some of the existing US open data policies hint at this important point, none of them appear to directly establish this precedent in action. Without the support of this critical provision, other aspects of an open data policy can be weakened or interpreted too loosely (or too narrowly) to provide meaningful openness.

We are sympathetic to the challenge facing open-data-minded cities today: The need to balance short-term technical solutions with the demands of long-term, ambitious-but-actionable policies. It is this challenge that demands we take an iterative view not just for how we build tech, but also policy. We can’t anticipate the data needs we’ll have in 10 years, let alone, tomorrow. But we can begin to prepare, we can be thoughtful at the start, and, thankfully, we can learn from each other.

Open data and, by proxy, open data policies have the potential to transform communities, to change the relationship between governments and constituents. The individual parts may seem simple — upgrading data formats, mandating electronic filing, requiring data to be published online — but their sum is something great. As we approach the creation of new policies, even in the earliest stages, we must keep in mind the ends we seek -- and we must create goals worth working on together.

We are only at the beginning of watching open data, as we understand it today, bloom, and we look forward to continuing to support these efforts and refine our own offerings as they evolve. If you’d like to talk more about open data in your community, get in touch: local(at)sunlightfoundation(dot)com. We welcome your input.

About the Author

Matthew McClellan

Matthew McClellan was the former research assistant and writer for the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group. Prior to joining the Ash Center, he worked for Harvard Public Affairs & Communications as part of the communications team. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and English from Amherst College.

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