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Open Data Victories Come to Illinois

The Illinois state legislature unanimously voted two open data bills through the House and Senate -- evidence that the state is poised to codify a widespread desire to open more data to the public.

Stakeholders agree that open data efforts enjoy broad-based support in Illinois, and they are poised to get some legislative backing that makes it official.

Two open data bills were recently voted through both the house and senate of the Illinois General Assembly with unanimous support. One bill (HB 1040) follows an executive order made by Gov. Pat Quinn last fall requiring state agencies to make open data a priority as new IT systems are considered and business processes are updated. The other piece of legislation, SB 2381, requires all grant-issuing agencies to report grant information to the state’s open data portal. One bill still needs to pass a concurrence vote, but both are expected to be signed by the governor and become law within the month, Illinois Chief Information Officer Sean Vinck told Government Technology.

That both bills had unanimous support and sponsors from both parties demonstrates the importance of open data, Vinck said. “People from every part of the ideological spectrum recognize the wisdom of making a serious commitment to utilizing what the amazing marketplace for technology goods and services and applications provides and the state government has to adapt to the most modern technology in order to deliver service in the most effective way,” he said. “And those are operational and management facts, not ideological facts. This is just good government and we’re very encouraged by it.”

HB 1040 creates new requirements for state agencies, including an “open operating standard,” intended to include open data efforts more frequently in regular government operations. The bill follows in the ideological footsteps of President Obama when he adopted the “cloud-first” policy at the federal level, Vinck said. The state of Illinois created its own cloud-first policy after the federal policy was created and this bill does something similar for open data, according to Vinck.

Agencies that are considering upgrades to hardware, software or infrastructure are required by HB 1040 to consider open data and transparency as key factors in the decision-making process. Making the cloud a priority was good for the state, Vinck said, and prioritizing open data will do the same. In fact, he said, the state’s cloud systems and open data efforts are connected because it is through their cloud infrastructure that the state’s open data efforts will be possible.

SB 2381 will require all state agencies that issue grants to report grant information to the state’s open data portal. This requirement grew in importance, Vinck said, as the state began using more external parties to provide state services -- the state now issues $10 billion a year in grant funding. “It’s going to provide a comprehensive, uniform database of information that will be accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet as to the basic details of every grant that the state and its agencies issues to external parties,” he said.

Vinck's job is to figure out how the state will manage to put all grant information in one place for the first time. While still in the planning phases, what they envision is the technology office working with all grant-making agencies to come up with an efficient system that consistently relays basic grant information, including grant name, recipient, issuer and purpose.

Grant information will be made available in multiple file formats so it is usable by as wide an audience as possible. The intent is for no individual or agency to be restricted because of a file formatting limitation, he said. “They would like to leverage this to advance our efforts to create an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, but until then we have to have a tool that will adapt itself to different software applications and different methods of reporting finances and the data portal is ideal for that,” he said.

If this bill becomes law this month, as Vinck expects it will, it would take effect next January. Aside from staff hours dedicated to the reporting process, there are no expected costs to this bill or HB 1040, he said. In fact, open data is expected to save the state money, he added. “The beauty of this implementation method is that we can adapt existing procedures and financial reporting efforts to provide the data for this effort,” he said.

Putting Open Data to Work

While data in itself may not be not very interesting, making data available is often the necessary foundation for new projects. The Illinois Science and Technology Coalition sponsored an effort started in 2012 called the Illinois Open Technology Challenge that created micro-sites for municipalities to post data on the state’s portal, which was then used in a competition where developers could work with municipalities to create solutions.

The solutions were largely based around economic development and helping government be more efficient and nimble, said Mark Harris, president and CEO of the coalition, who added that these new open data initiatives allow such contests to be possible. “[Open data legislation is] really laying the groundwork for ultimately what will be new solutions when you think about bringing in the tech community and others not just in terms of transparency but of just government innovation,” he said.

In June, Quinn announced that $60,000 in prizes would be awarded to four participating teams. The teams came from different regions: one from Belleville, one from Champaign, one representing the southern suburbs, and one representing the state.

The state team developed a Web app, called iApplied, intended to streamline the review process for unemployment insurance by tracking job application activity. The Belleville team created Belleville Code, a website showcasing city ordinances previously only found in lengthy PDF documents tucked away on the city clerk’s website. The Champaign team created “C-U There!,” a local tour guide app for the iPhone, and the southern suburbs team created the “South Suburbs Housing Investment Tool,” which allows users to view potential housing development projects, then analyze, rank and score them.

The real challenge around open data thus far, according to Daniel O’Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, has been the lack of a central figure who can organize everyone around a common goal that already enjoys widespread support. “I think the challenge is in having an institutional focus on the publication of data,” he said. “I think we’re at a point in the open government movement where there’s plenty of will to do the work.”

Challenges that produce new technology are made possible by a support structure, O'Neil said. There is very little opposition to the open data movement, he said, so it makes sense to legislate around such a common goal. “There are agencies that are chomping at the bit to publish data and they just don’t have the expertise or the staff or the time. What this legislation provides is a structure that allows for that … and I think that’s a good thing,” O’Neil said.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.