On City of Long Beach and Open (Data|Govt|Source)
“Open Data”, “Open Source”, and “Open Government” may be all the rage these days. However, the principles are nothing new – in any functional republic, government data has always belonged to its citizens, as made clear by FOIA, other laws, and the principles of representative democracy. What’s changed is that the means to freely and easily disseminate data has itself been democratized and commoditized with the universal availability of information technology. Modern governments participate in the processing and distribution of massive volumes of publicly-owned data every day via modern information technology, and the extent to which this data is both a) safe to share and b) isn’t shared openly with its citizens ought to be seen as a failure of both policy and process. Further, openness in this age implies much more than just responding reactively to FOIA requests with the minimum response required by statute – contemporary values demand proactive sharing of access, to let citizens reap the benefits on their terms.
This topic is on my mind lately in light of several conversations recently with folks at various levels within the City of Long Beach government, including developers and members of our recently formed Technology and Innovation Commission. A consistent theme in these conversations has been that resources are inevitably limited, and therefore we can’t do everything at once. I would be a fool if I didn’t agree with the obvious truth of the sentiment, but I think it misses the point a bit – I would hope all reasonable stakeholders agree that we can’t do everything at once, but that shouldn’t stop us from moving in the right direction. A clear, unambiguous policy statement clarifying the City of Long Beach intent to move towards greater openness, and the promotion of simple, incremental steps to get there, requires minimal resources – mainly, the willingness to adopt policy and processes that are already widely understood and embraced by cities, states and federal agencies across the country.
City leadership cannot resolve all potential resource constraints, but they can lead by policy clarification. I call on our Mayor, our City Council, and our Technology and Innovation Commission, to address the lack of clear policy about open data within the City of Long Beach. These bodies can lead by immediately adopting the 8 Principles of Open Government Data as aspirational goals – acknowledging that while we aren’t there yet, and the road may be long, those eight principles do in fact define the destination. This will help focus and benchmark all future decision making; without a clear policy outline, these issues will continue to be debated, ignored, or forgotten, leaving the burden of responsibility on activist citizens to continually demand access to which they have an inherent right.
Practical Steps with Minimal Impact
Acknowledging the practical limitations of resource constraints, there are still several immediate, positive steps the City of Long Beach can make towards improving openness with minimal impact by leveraging work that’s already been done, or by influencing future decision making.
- Immediately inventory and provide open access to data already being provided to third-parties – it is unacceptable to provide proprietary access to government data for only select parties. Unless data is sensitive and sharing it with the public would violate privacy laws, security or common sense, it is hard to justify limiting proactive access to only select third-parties. Where the city generates any data for, or on behalf of, a third party, the default position should be to provide that data to the public unless a clear security or privacy issue can be identified.
- Provide immediate open access to all data exposed through existing city information systems. For example, the recent longbeach.gov relaunch represented an opportunity – all data already being provided through longbeach.gov in human-readable format (HTML, PDF) should be immediately opened through machine-readable formats. All modern content management systems support the transformation and delivery of the same information in both human- and machine-readable formats.
- Mandate that all new information system projects the city implements or integrates with defaults to providing free access to public data. Exceptions – which are inevitable – should require a security or privacy justification, in order to insure transparency and maintain the commitment to open government wherever possible.
- Mandate that all reports prepared for by city officials and staff be made readily available to the public in a searchable repository on longbeach.gov unless a security or privacy justification triggers an exemption.
- Open source all applications developed by, or on behalf of, the City of Long Beach, and implement an open source governance model to enable collaboration on city applications with the growing Long Beach technology community. As a start, open source the entire Go Long Beach suite of applications.
- Set up an open government commission to act as the interface between city government and our community. Open government isn’t just about technology – this panel should be representative of the variety of stakeholders interested in this issue, from activists to politicians, businesses to community groups. Many resources are available to help frame and focus the activities of such a commission – the Open Government Guide is a useful framework.
- Adopt a statement of preference for open source technologies during evaluation, acquisition and integration of information systems. In sectors where open source isn’t leading – for example, office and imaging applications, and other verticals with limited competition – practical exemptions ought to be granted on request by the purchasing department. Open source leads in many markets, but this goal should be balanced with the practical concerns of competitive total costs and functionality.
- As a software engineer, I believe in pragmatism above all else – there is no perfect system, or perfect code, or, for that matter, perfect government. Much of the conversation about open data focuses on development of accessible open APIs – interfaces designed for programmers to integrate with living datasets on government systems. However, APIs are not the only approach to providing open data. While critial in some instances – particularly where realtime data, such as police and fire dispatch, is needed – APIs require additional services to be developed and maintained. In many instances, static data files generated on a regular schedule, and hosted on a public repository, would more than adequately address the basic requirements for open data, with a much lower initial effort.
The process of transitioning to a more open data-friendly government may be a long road, but there are immediate steps that can be taken. There are certainly issues and perspectives I haven’t anticipated here, but I look forward to helping advance this discussion.
– Roger Howard, independent software developer, Long Beach native
The Annotated 8 Principles of Open Government Data Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Policy Guidelines Data.gov OpenGovernmentData.org OpenGovGuide.com Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Open Government Guide Open Government Partnership GovLab of NYU