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Why Is an Open Data Policy Necessary?

The open data movement continues to transition from an emphasis on transparency to measuring the civic and economic impact of open data programs. As part of this transition, governments are realizing the importance of creating a formal policy to define strategic goals, describe the desired benefits, and provide the scope for data publishing efforts over time.

An official open data policy is one of the most effective ways to obtain organizational support and transformational change with your open data initiative. Pioneering organizations like New York City, Chicago, Montgomery County, New York State, and Halifax have all adopted official open data policies to increase transparency, further agency goals, and create economic opportunities for citizens.

Below you will find tips and links to example open data policies. Use these as a reference when developing your own. 

“Open Data is a bit of a misnomer because it can be so much more than that. It isn’t just about open data, it is a catalyst for the cultural transformation many governments are trying to spur.”

David Eaves, Open Innovation Expert, Eaves Consulting

Open Data Policy Perspective

The Benefits of Good Policy

Before considering the investment needed to create an open data policy, it is helpful to examine some of the benefits. When well executed, policies can yield a range of positive outcomes. These include:

  • Additional funding to make sure the programs have the requisite infrastructure
  • Longevity beyond any individual leader’s term
  • A wake-up call to spur slow-moving bureaucracies

Elements of an Effective Open Data Policy

In thinking about the steps for developing an open data policy, many leaders wonder about what components are necessary and what specific language should be incorporated. While open data policies can take a number of different forms (see below for the four main policy types), there are some generally accepted best practices for what kinds of information to include in each.

Consider these three areas when creating your open data policy:

Goals

Why are you launching an open data program? What do you hope to achieve? Share this information in your policy. Be explicit and help people understand the benefit of spending time and energy on open data.

Datasets

Specify the types of datasets to be included in your portal. You can limit them to certain areas, such as finance or crime, or be more inclusive. We recommend including as much data as possible.

For example, New York City’s policy explicitly states that all city data that does not contain personal information should be on the open data portal. They have an “open by default” mandate. This means that all public data is considered “open data” unless it contains personal information about citizens. This approach makes it easier to get all agencies to publish their data on the open data portal. Plus, you’ll save yourself time you would have spent answering the question, “What do I publish?”

Designated Roles

Use your open data policy to designate the roles of specific stakeholders within your open data program. The city of Chicago, for example, used its policy to create a working group between department heads and Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein. The group convenes on a regular basis to discuss how each department is contributing to the mayor’s open data initiative.

Read the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Policy Guidelines, one of the best resources on the kinds of challenges that open data policies can address.


The Main Types of Open Data Policies

Generally speaking, there are four types of policy levels currently in use regarding open data: executive orders, new laws, new regulations, and non-binding resolutions. None of these four tools has a monopoly on documentation length.

Policy Tool #1: Executive Orders

The prime example of an open data executive order in action is President Barack Obama’s Open Data Initiative. While this executive order was short – only four paragraphs on two pages – the real policy magic was a mandate-by-reference that required all U.S. federal agencies to comply with a detailed set of time-bound actions. All of these requirements are publicly viewable on a GitHub repository – a free hosting service for open source software development projects – which is revolutionary in and of itself. Detailed discussions on government transparency took place not in closed-door boardrooms, but online for everyone to see, edit, and improve.

Policy Tool #2: Non-Binding Resolutions

A classic example of a non-binding resolution can be found by doing an online search for the resolution of Palo Alto, California. Short and sweet, this town squire-like exercise delivers additional attention to the movement inside and outside of government. The lightweight policy tool also has the benefit of lasting a bit longer than any particular government official. Although, in recognition of the numerous resolutions that have ever come out of any small town, resolutions are only as timeless as people’s memory. See the Appendix below for specific Resolution language.

Policy Tool #3: Internal Regulations

The New York State Handbook on Open Data is a great example of internal regulations put to good use. Originating from the Office of Information Technology Resources, the handbook is a comprehensive, clear, and authoritative guide on how open data is actually supposed to work. Also available on GitHub, the handbook resembles the federal open data project in many ways.

Policy Tool #4: Codified Laws

Legislation that becomes codified law is the 800-pound gorilla of open data policy tools.  The archetypal example comes from San Francisco. Interestingly, what started as an “Executive Directive” from Mayor Gavin Newsom later turned into legislation and brought with it the power of stronger Department mandates and a decent budget. Once enacted, laws are generally hard to revise. However, in the case of San Francisco, the city council has already revised the law two times in four years.

A Nod to the Pioneers
Vancouver and Portland introduced progressive open data motions as early as 2009, but the one that started it all is Washington, D.C. back in 2006.


Open Data Policy Examples and Resources

New York City

The city of New York is the originator of “open by default.” New York City’s open data policy states, “…it is in the best interest of New York City that its agencies and departments make their data available online using open standards.” In addition, Mayor Bloomberg, chief digital officer Rachel Hoat, and many other government officials have worked to create one of the most thorough plans for a digital city in the 21st century called the “2012 Digital Roadmap.” This document details, among many things, the benefits of open data to a 21st century city. 

New York State

In 2012, New York State’s Committee on Open Government released a report to the governor and the legislature with a wish list of transparency and accountability recommendations. The key request was that state and local governments and public entities expand their use of “open data” formats to “whenever possible.” While transparency was a goal, the committee saw value in reducing the effort needed to fulfill Freedom of Information Law requests from the public.

Looking for more help with your open data initiative? The city of Edmonton has published an Open Data Toolkit full of useful resources.

City of Chicago

In the fall of 2012, the city of Chicago released an official open data policy, though it already had a very successful open data program. The executive order from Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed for full organizational support. The policy mandated the formation of an advisory group, led by the city’s chief data officer. It meets on a regular basis to discuss each agency’s open data goals.

Sample Documents

Many government agencies have published policies and implementation plans that can be used for guidance in drafting your own:

Policies

Implementation Guides


Sample Resolution

These example “Whereas” statements can precede legislative prescriptions or be used as the primary content for a Resolution issued by elected officials:

WHEREAS, the government is committed to using technology to foster open, transparent, and accessible government; and

WHEREAS, the government seeks to provide its citizens with safe and vibrant neighborhoods, great jobs, a strong system of education and innovation, and a high quality of life; and

WHEREAS, the adoption of open data improves provision of services, increases transparency and access to public information, and enhances coordination and efficiencies among departments and partner organizations across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors; and

WHEREAS, it should be easy to do business with the government. Online government interactions mean more convenient services for citizens and businesses and online government interactions improve the cost-effectiveness and accuracy of government operations; and

WHEREAS, an open government also makes certain that every aspect of the built environment has reliable digital descriptions available to citizens and entrepreneurs for deep engagement mediated by smart devices; and

WHEREAS, every citizen has the right to prompt, efficient service from the government; and

WHEREAS, the protection of privacy, confidentiality and security will be maintained as a paramount priority while also advancing the government’s transparency and accountability through open data.

WHEREAS, an open data policy will provide benefits that include:

  1. enhanced government transparency and accountability;
  2. development of new analyses or applications based on the unique data the government provides;
  3. mobilization of a high-tech workforce to use government data to create useful civic tools at no cost to the government; and
  4. creation of social and economic benefits based on innovation in how residents interact with government stemming from increased accessibility to data sets. 

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