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Mandating Transparency

Open data legislation shows no sign of slowing down. Here’s where new laws can be expected in 2015.

More than 20 state and local governments adopted or amended open data edicts in 2014, making it a banner year for transparency. But the policies set forth by Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Houston, Maryland, Illinois and the others are just the tip of the iceberg. Experts believe the trend will continue in 2015, particularly in the East.

Ohio is considering a measure at the state level, while Boston and Cambridge, Mass., could pass local open data laws in 2015, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The organization also has its eye on open data conversations happening in Alaska, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Alisha Green, policy associate for the Sunlight Foundation, said Ohio is of particular interest, due to “a lot of excitement” concerning open data around the state in 2014. She expects laws on the topic to be passed at some point this year.

“There are an increasing number of discussions around the value of open data and what it can have,” said Green. “Not only transparency, accountability and innovation, but more generally through encouraging collaboration between governments, nonprofits and community groups.”

Also spotlighted by Green was Connecticut. Cities throughout the state will be looking at their open data policies after successful ones were rolled out by the state and the capital city of Hartford.

Open data activity continues next door in Massachusetts. Although Boston has an executive order regarding open data, Green said the city might pass legislation to help bolster it. That could trigger further movement in Cambridge on the issue.

Ben Kallos, a New York City councilmember and co-chair of the Free Law Founders, a nationwide partnership of local elected officials and others dedicated to upgrading online access to America’s laws and legislation, agreed.

“Cambridge and Boston … are probably the most serious of the contenders with legislation most likely to pass,” he said. “[They] are sister cities within the same vicinity and both have a very educated populous who are technologically savvy and demanding of these sorts of things. And they have tech-savvy legislators on board, so I think they are the two cities to watch.”

Green also sees California continuing to set an example with open data policies and legislation. San Diego passed a policy at the end of 2014, and other cities and counties in the state will likely follow.

Calling California a “leader with technology and innovation,” Green said local governments are going to see the added value of having open data policies in place for collaboration and information sharing. She explained that passage of a 2014 ballot measure signals strong support for open data among California voters. The measure — known as the California Compliance of Local Agencies with Public Act — requires local governments and agencies to comply with the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act as well as with any subsequent changes to the acts. This guarantees a person’s lawful right to attend public meetings and have access to public data.

“The voters decided the state public records law is something all municipalities will have to adhere to,” Green said.

What to Watch

While many large U.S. cities have jumped on the open data bandwagon already, Green said 2015 is ripe to have a lot of mid-size cities and counties follow suit and take the leap. While she couldn’t name specific local governments, Green anticipates that the growing number of public records requests will spur leaders to consider formal open data policies.

Green also noted that more municipalities are taking a proactive approach to sharing data, rather than simply reacting to public records requests. Kallos has noticed the same trend and New York City is working to address it.

The city is following the federal Freedom of Information Act with its similarly named Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which includes a “three strikes and you’re in” initiative to add more information to New York City’s open data portal. After a city agency receives three requests for the same data set or record, that information is added to the data portal if it isn’t already uploaded.

For example, Kallos explained that the City Council’s payroll records are “FOILed” regularly. So instead of requiring people to request the data, it would make more sense to put it online.
“Beyond the open data, it’s just helpful to have tracking of the information that people are requesting and having it public so … we can actually be responsive to the overall requests we’re seeing as a city,” Kallos said.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.