At Issue: Will NYC's Open Data Catch Fire?

New York City's new mandate takes openness to another level, and could tie in other big cities.

by / March 12, 2012
New York City. Photo courtesy of Leo Newball, Jr.

Last month, the New York City Council inked a wide-ranging open data mandate for the city, and last Wednesday, March 7, in the latest affirmation of the sustainability of open data, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed what he termed "the most ambitious and comprehensive open data legislation in the country."

“If we’re going to continue leading the country in innovation and transparency," said Bloomberg in a press release, "we’re going to have to make sure that all New Yorkers have access to the data that drives our city.  Across city government, agencies use data to develop policy, implement programs, and track performance — and each month, our administration shares more and more of this data with the public at large, catalyzing the creativity, intellect and enterprising spirit of computer programmers to build tools that help us all improve our lives."

Bloomberg touted the city's BigApps competitions, saying dozens of useful applications now help residents to do everything from finding restaurants to locating available parking spaces. He went on to mandate three steps to further open the doors on city data:

1. The Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications must post on its website a technical standards manual, which will help agencies make their public data available to the greatest number of users and for the greatest number of applications.

2. Within a year, each agency must convert all of its public data sets that are currently online in “locked” formats into formats that enable computer programmers to use the data to build applications.

3. Within 18 months, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications will work with each agency to post a compliance plan, describing all of the public data sets in each agency’s possession. The plan will be then be updated each year, and will serve as a roadmap for agencies to post these datasets to a single Web portal by 2018.

Ifs, Ands and Buts

Is open data and transparency an essential service of government, especially during a recovery from recession? Or has it passed its high-water mark? As noted in an earlier Digital Communities story about the sustainability of open data, the Obama administration slashed funding for transparency initiatives including, the federal government's landmark open data website. In addition, Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra  -- who drove the federal government's open data initiatives — have left the administration.

But in a recent interview with Government Technology, New York City CIO Carole Post said that while open data may not be an essential service to the same extent as putting out fires or responding to crimes, it is an essential part of the long-term evolution of city government. "Is the transparency and openness of government an essential? We say absolutely ... We feel that the more data and information that we make openly and readily available to our constituents, the less likely it is that open data will fade away, because once it’s out there, it’s very hard to take it back."

Post said that the legislation passed by the City Council and now signed by Bloomberg takes transparency and access "into the stratosphere for local government ...  I think you will see a different dynamic around data as an essential service in the coming years."

Big City Collaboration

And in another affirmation of open data, San Francisco CIO Jon Walton told Government Technology that a group of seven large-city CIOs are collaborating on open data, "to see what are our most popular data sets: 311 data, public safety data, transit data — we’ve started trying to formalize our data between cities ... to agree on data schemas, data models, so that when someone writes an application for San Francisco that same application will work in all the other six cities." Walton said that those cities would make some kind of joint announcement within the next several months.

"We all have similar needs, the same problems and often the same solutions," said Post, "so if we’re able to solve a similar problem, through a solution that can be used by many of us, there is tangible cost avoidance and savings that can be calculated. So we’re discussing both how to share our data, as well as share our systems and share our solutions."

At Issue: Is local government open data an essential of governance, or an idea whose time has passed? Leave your comments in the section below. Stay tuned for a special Digital Communities section on local government open data.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.