By Toby McIntosh
Small signs are signaling the emergence of more cooperation between two transparency communities – one focused on open data, the other on access to information – whose relationship has been hampered by cultural differences and distinct agendas, according to FreedomInfo.org interviews with activists in both camps.
The cultural differences, in part the gap between lawyers and computer experts, may have played a role in keeping the two communities apart.
To veterans of the freedom of information (FOI) community, the open data (OD) movement grabbed center stage with laptops and ambitious ideas for making government data more useful. Busy with its own challenges, the OD community has seen little need for worrying about traditional issues of concern to FOI activists.
So despite sharing many common values and goals, the two communities have stayed largely apart, working in their respective activity zones.
New factors seem to be bringing them together, including:
- The Open Government Partnership has created a new space for all transparency activists.
- Proactive disclosure of government information is becoming a more clearly shared agenda.
- The open data community may be headed for more political action to solve persistent problems.
In each of these areas, there are signals of emerging communication and cooperation.
OD Energy Contagious?
“The open data movement has given a welcome impetus to the transparency movement,” according to Helen Darbishire, a European FOI expert.
“I’m ready to come out now and say I am also an open data person; I am not longer just a FOI person,” Darbishire told FreedomInfo.org. Darbishire is the director of Access Info, a Madrid based nongovernmental organization.
“You have to take up the opportunities that are presenting themselves as the world evolves technologically and politically,” Darbishire said, terming the OD movement a “refreshing” source of “renewal and renovation.”
The two movements are coming together, said Darbishire, who a year ago she helped write a report that lamented the poor communication. The convergence is “in flux,” she said, “It’s happening, but you have to give it time.”
Similarly, Martin Tisne, whose current and past jobs have given him a front row seat to the transparency and open government movements, observed, “Seems to me that many in the OD movement are keen for cooperation with FOI folks but unsure how to go about it, and look at the world from different perspective, i.e. less legal/political.”
“HOWEVER, I have noticed a change over the past 2 years and much more positiveness about engaging on either side,” Tisne wrote FreedomInfo.org.
Tisne is now director of policy at the Omidyar Network. He was previously the director of the Transparency & Accountability Initiative, a research-oriented consortium of major funders in the transparency sphere. He also serves on the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), where some of the FOI/OD tensions have been on display.
Forces for Cohesion
The year-old OGP may be fostered better communication, OGP supporters said, alth9ugh OGP meetings also have been the forum where tensions have surfaced.
By asking its 57 participating governments to develop national action plans, and to involve civil society, the OGP is encouraging more unity among transparency advocates of various stripes, particularly at the national level, observers said. By defining the agenda broadly as “open government,” the OGP has invited participation from not only those who develop transparency tools, but those who concentrate on their use in governance.
Another potentially unifying factor could develop because the open data community – which so far has benefitted by government willingness to post more and more data online and has been busy finding transformative uses for that data — is more frustrated with governments.
Open data activists seem more interested in pressing for regulatory and legislative changes to remedy problems such as data released in unusable formats. The upcoming Open Knowledge conference this September in Finland, where hundreds of OD folks will gather, will include several seminars about the OGP, open data legislation, and the effect of privacy laws on open data.
Efforts from the OD community to amend laws or pass new ones have emerged in recent years, with some success, mostly in North America. Some of these campaigns have garnered support from the FOI community.
If OD activists need to knock on politicians’ doors, they could benefit from an alliance with politically experienced FOI activists, who have their own list of backlogged reform demands, often about overly narrow exemptions and administration roadblocks. In many countries, FOI reform agendas have fallen flat, so the energetic open data movement could provide new yeast.
Whether such joint action occurs remains to be seen, but the fact of increasing communication is heralded by some as an achievement considering the significant difference between the communities.
OD From Mars, FOI From Venus
To many FOI activists, open data activists are geeks, talking an incomprehensible technical language at events called mashups, hackathons and transparency camps. They wear t-shirts with slogans such as “Code for America” and “Data Wants to Be Free – Remember That and You’ll Never Go Wrong.” Many FOI activists, largely with legal and social action backgrounds, willingly admit to computer illiteracy.
If the lingo seems baffling, the sheer energy is both impressive and mindboggling. One OD meeting announcement bubbled, “We need you! If you can screen scrape or have data wrangling abilities, come along (either virtually or in person) to hang out, drink good coffee and wrangle.” Attendance continues to grow at OD events, held in more and more countries, and funding seems robust.
By contrast, ODers might yawn at the topics at FOI conferences, such as “Elements of a FOIA request,” “Legal principles governing access to third party personal information” or “Examining national security exemptions.” For OD activists, for whom the excitement comes mostly from manipulating government data with cool new tools; creating maps and apps, the FOI community seems stuck in a “request-driven” world, wrangling for tidbits while the OD movement swings open the doors of the government data pantry.
Suspicions About OD
For FOI activists, the years of struggle to build the legal guarantees for the right of access seem unappreciated by the OD community. Difficult campaigns to obtain and shape good access regimes now seem to be overshadowed by a tinsel-town of portals, dashboards and apps.
Asked about his beef with the OD community, one experienced FOI expert replied, “Well, mainly because governments use it as an excuse to not to work on more pressing transparency issues, such as adopting laws or revising them (see e.g. UK and Kenya). The OD guys don’t know yet what they are missing and how it relates to what we do.”
Apparent disinterest among some the OD community in fixing FOI laws is a “serious weakness for us,” one person commented. More specifically, Gary Dickson, the Saskatchewan information commissioner recently lamented that the Canadian government created a new data portal but resists fixing a 28-year-old access to information law.
“FOI followers haven’t really been that interested by and large in open data initiatives, other than (and I include myself in this) being a bit suspicious of Govt motives – ie is open data (or Open Govt) a Trojan horse to cover attempts to weaken FOI,” UK blogger and FOI activist Paul Gibbons observed. While expressing an interest in learning from the OD community, he commented, “I think the perception is that open data/govt is a very techy initiative, but it would be good to find a way to make it accessible to the less techy amongst us.”
Similar perceptions have their corollary in the OD world.
“I just think FOIA is broken; the wait time makes it broken….” David Eaves, a Canadian open government “evangelist,” told the October 2011 meeting of International information commissioners. He said “efforts to repair it are at the margins” and governments have little incentive for reform. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)
Slightly more conciliatory in April, Eaves wrote:
“It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way (sic) we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.”
OD activists recognize the underlying importance of access laws, even if it’s sometimes unspoken. “When the FOIA community is thought of it’s thought of highly,” commented one U.S. OD activist who sees herself at the “intersection” of the two communities and “definitely believes that cohesion is possible between these two communities.”
“Many advocates of the Open Government movement would only speak of data catalogues,” wrote Jonathan Eyler-Werve, director of Technology and Innovation at Global Integrity, an independent nonprofit organization tracking international governance and corruption trends., “More seasoned representatives, however, would equally include such issues as public gatherings, laws on freedom of information, and obligations to disclosure,” he said.
Addressing the process of getting data, a speaker at the Washington transparency camp said, “The hardest part of this effort is not going to be the technology,… it will be “the actual information gathering.” An invited journalist presenter at the camp, from the U.S. state of Georgia, received cheers after recounting his court victory to gain access to local records.
Darbishire chided “naysayers” in the FOI community who “don’t know quite how to make the most of it.” She also lamented that comments like Eaves’ exacerbate divisions at a time when “synergies” are developing at macro and micro levels. Caricatures of the two communities have been damaging, she said. “It’s unfair to the geeks to paint them as superficial.”
Sometimes lost in the contrast of backgrounds, styles and agendas is that both communities share the aim of providing information to citizens and the belief that transparency is a critically valuable social policy tool, activists from both communities said.
In their own ways, FOI and OD activists are both intermediaries; helpmates for various social causes, but with different niche functions in the information supply chain.
FOI activists press for access rights and request specific records, sometimes even including databases, often working with experts, NGOs and civil society groups, to improve knowledge of government and the public dialogue.
OD activists seek data and develop innovative outcomes such as maps, apps, interactive systems and more. Some aspire to broader goals of increasing civic engagement and affecting policy. “… [A]s many cities have learned, it takes a lot more than uploading databases to a website to reap the benefits of open data,” wrote Adam Sneed in a Sept. 7 article. “The bigger challenge is getting people to participate in government in ways they haven’t done before.” Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“Open Knowledge in Action,” is the theme of the upcoming Sept. 12-22 Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, elaborated as “looking at the value that can be generated by opening up knowledge, the ecosystems of organisations that can benefit from such sharing, and the impacts transparency can have in our societies.” There are 13 key “Topic Streams,” ranging from “Government Transparency” to “Open Hardware.”
OD activist Lucy Chambers, the community coordinator for the Open Knowledge Foundation, said, “I’d personally like to think that there is quite a lot of overlap between the communities (if indeed there are two separate communities, I see us as part of a broadly similar landscape).”
Proactive Disclosure a Shared Interest
Both FOI and OD camps support proactive information disclosure by governments.
“Transparency is never going to be meaningful unless a significant amount of information is released proactively,” Darbishire said.
Expectations for proactive disclosure are rising.
“Consider the fantastic research by ViveloHoy, a local paper in the Chicago suburbs of Champaign and Urbana. It acquired five years of arrest data—via Freedom of Information Requests, not open data, unfortunately—to show” [discrimination in jaywalking arrests], wrote Eaves recently.
“Unfortunately” meaning that the data had to be requested and wasn’t proactively issued by the government.
FOI campaigns in recent decades have focused more passing laws to ensure access rights, often with difficulty. Efforts for proactive disclosure have been sometimes overshadowed. Such provisions exist in some FOI laws, such as in Mexico, and have become standard features in proposed FOI laws.
Playing a major role in proactive disclosure was the ever-improving government computerization, which has not only increased the flow of information, but raised expectations. Since May 2009, when data.gov was launched in the United States and September 2009, when the UK site opened, there’s been plenty to absorb.
To expand the flow, the OD community has relied more on persuasion and changing technology, than on new legal requirements. A newer generation of open data laws, however, such as the one passed by New York City in 2012, push more aggressively not only for machine-readable formats, but also for the release of more databases.
Some FOI experts predict that OD activists may get more interested in FOI law when their requests for data bump up against the standard exemptions – commercial interests, personal exemptions, national security, and protection of government process.
What might the future look like?
UK Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the UK’s top representative to the OGP, said July 3, “I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much [open] data that people won’t have to ask for it,” according to an Information Age report. Almost nobody believes that.
Report Described Differences
The need for convergence of the FOI and OD communities was highlighted in a January 2011 report on the legal challenges face efforts to make government data more available.
Published by Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation after wide consultation, with Darbishire as the main author, the report comprehensively surveys the accelerating open data movement and describes weaknesses in existing right to know laws that inhibit the release and use of data.
“The access to information and open government data movements are not yet collaborating sufficiently closely and are therefore missing opportunities to advance the transparency agenda,” says the 98-page report, titled “Beyond Access: Open Government Data and the ‘Right to Reuse.’”
It expresses concern “that members of these movements do not talk the same language: open government data experts are not familiar with the law-based approach of access to information advocates, while the technical terminology employed by the civic hackers is baffling for the human rights activists.”
Getting into substantive issues, the report explained, “There are serious shortcomings in the current international and national standards defining the scope of the right of access to information, resulting in the release of information in formats that cannot be reused.” Many laws “do not yet encompass a right of access to full databases, to raw datasets, and to information in electronic, machine-processable, and non-proprietary formats.”
The report also expresses concern that “government bodies around the world are still asserting intellectual property rights and ownership rights over the information they produce.” There is “an urgent need for review of the legal framework which defines who owns government information,” the report states, also noting charges for commercial reuse as a problem.
Others also have urged more cooperation and foreseen synergies.
Two preliminary views of the future of the open data movement in Latin America were presented at The First Global Conference on Transparency Research held May 19-20, 2012, at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J. One examination concluded that it is still “early days” and suggests that better coordination is needed between access to information (ATI) campaigners and open data activists. (See report in FreedomInfo.org.) The paper also predicted: “If ATI activists and civic hackers manage to target particular topics adding “value” to the discussion, demand for open data could eventually increase in the region.”
Darbishire Sees `Renewal’
“There has been so much contact, so much talking,” Darbishire said when asked about what has happened since the report came out. “I think we are talking about how to sustain the gains that have been made in the initial rush of the enthusiasm for the OD movement.”
She participates in group discussions being sponsored by the Open Knowledge Foundation, one of the few FOI activists involved. While not expecting many FOI types to attend the Helsinki meeting, she thinks both communities will be well-represented at a regional OGP meeting in Croatia in early October. She sees more interaction occurring at the national level.
Whether the convergence will result in a campaign for open data laws remains to be seen, according to Darbishire. “We do not currently have a movement for open data laws,” she said, while emphasizing that things could change after upcoming meetings in Finland.
She also praised the OD movement for beginning an international project to map which datasets have been released, saying such maps might combined drives to liberate undisclosed databases.
OD Political Action?
The OK Fest program suggests an evolution within the OD community toward looking for more data, and in new places, plus examining the need for legal reforms.
“The bigger picture: open data/open government and open societies,” is the topic for one session. With a mix of praise for both the OD and FOI communities, the program states:
Openness and transparency are becoming defining elements of governance in the 21st century after long campaigns by advocates of transparency and access to information laws. But it is also the result of the vertiginous development by civic hackers throughout the world of projects that enable both the re-use of public information and citizen engagement. On the supply side developments on Open Data have played a key role, to the point that sometimes they almost appear to be equated with Open Government. But is this the case? Technology and Open Data are critical enablers of 21st century transparency, but they need to fit into a comprehensive model of open and participatory governance. Conversely opening government data only covers some of the data that affects citizens’ lives, with much of the data that keeps the world going – finance, energy, social media… – only accessible to small elites or companies with deep pockets. How can we overcome these information asymmetry and build a knowledge society that is truly inclusive and open?
Another OK Fest session will address open data and privacy:
This session will foster an open debate on the relationship between open government data and privacy. Is open data really a threat to privacy, or is privacy only an excuse for protecting other interests? What is the role of the legal framework for data protection? Can technical tools guarantee both open data and privacy protection?
OGP’s Potential Unifying Influence
The emergence of the multilateral Open Government Partnership is bringing together not only FOI and OD advocates, but also many other “open government” causes; so many as to spark debate about how to define the term “open government.”
Thus far, representatives of these movements — several hundred attended the April annual meeting in Brazil — have come together in international and national settings. Some view OGP-inspired togetherness as an opportunity to start a powerful, mutually beneficial coalition.
Both the FOI and OD camps have been active in OGP activities, with some apparent tensions.
From the outset, it appeared to some FOI activists that access laws were being underemphasized in the OGP’s framework.
Having a FOI law is not a requirement for OGP membership. Of the 57 members (out of 79 eligible countries), seven lack FOI laws. Some FOI activists have contemplated how to make having a FOI law a requirement for membership, a move unlikely to happen.
The OGP threshold was by design. The OGP creators aimed to entice members with the hope that thousands of open government flowers would bloom, possibly even FOI blossoms.
OGP membership, however, has been used by activists as leverage, including by the pro-FOI coalition in the Philippines and the campaign fighting the proposed secrecy law in South Africa. They have called their government’s positions inconsistent with OGP membership.
At OGP meetings, many of the speeches and presentations have focused on the latest developments from the OD world, and OD-related promises have dominated the national action plans that started arriving in the spring of 2012.
“Open Data” and “E-Government” — accounted for nearly a third of all the commitments, as was documented in a Global Integrity analysis. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)
The “symbol” of open government is having an open data portal, one government official was overheard in Brazil.
Much less common have been promises to bolster FOI laws, according to a study by the Canadian-based NGO Centre for Democracy and Law. “Just 13 of the 44 Plans include a pledge to engage in serious RTI law reform,” CLD found.
Civil Society Interaction Expected to Grow
In many countries, the development of the first OGP plans was rushed, with limited public participation. This offered little evidence about whether cooperation or competition would emerge among CSOs with different openness agendas, OGP observers said.
In the United States, representatives from both the FOI and OD camps participate in a watchdog group observing implementation of the U.S. action plan with little friction reported. “I’d say that there hasn’t really been much tension between the open data vs. “traditional” FOI. In part because the US plan has a little bit of something for everyone,” a person very close to the process said.
But in the United Kingdom, where the national action plan is heavily weighted to OD projects, FOI activists are “not happy at all” about it, said one person from the FOI community close to the process who said there is “marginal cooperation.”
With OGP groups forming on many OGP countries and regions, most observers are upbeat about an interactive future. But they say it’s too early to see whether there will be a rainbow coalition of transparency and open government activists.
Opportunities for Cooperation?
A desire to work on synergistic regulatory and legal reforms is emerging, according to some observers, although the manifestations are limited.
The ripest opportunities for cooperation may be in areas such as the formats for government data and the rules about reusing it. Weaknesses in these areas have long bothered the OD community, and although in many places headway has been made, there appears to be some fresh interest in standard-setting.
Model policies have been agreed on for about five years. Joshua Tauberer’s 2012 history of the open data movement, “Open Government Data,” describes these efforts.
An open government working group convened by Carl Malamud in November 2007 was the first to attempt this. Its 8 Principles of Open Government Data, included in full in section 7.1 and online at opengovdata.org, specified a working definition for what it means for public government data to be open. The Open Knowledge Foundation wrote an Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) at opendefinition.org (and reproduced in section 7.2) in 2006, which adapted a definition of open source software for sharing data.
Some governments have altered their practices without legislative mandates. Statutory policies on open data have been adopted in more than a dozen local ordinances in Canada and the United States, often based on the 8 Principles, Tauberer documents. Civic Commons has a round-up of OD laws.
Overall, Tauberer concluded: “Open government and data policy legislation is still evolving. Interestingly, it is the cities and states in the United States leading the legal frontier of open data here. And abroad, licensing rather than openness per se has seen the most traction.”
The creation of models continues. The U.S. Sunlight Foundation issued best practices guidelines for open legislative data and 10 Principles of Open Data. The Open Knowledge Foundation recently defined the “open” in open data.
Perhaps more significantly as a signal of convergence, the Sunlight Foundation in July issued 33-point Guidelines for Open Data Policies that address such traditional FOIA topics such as exceptions that are too narrow, fees and the lack of a provision to permit release when useful to the public interest. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)
Whether the attention to legislation will expand remains difficult to determine. Again, a session at the OK fest hints at growing interest. The program states:
Do we need global open government data standards? Do they exist already? Are the existing sets of principles and recommendations, developed by the OGD community good enough? What’s missing? How do technical standards and policy guidelines relate to each other?
Hunting More Databases
Cooperation in the hunt for more databases may be another area where FOI/OD political cooperation makes sense.
The Obama administration stressed that “high value” databases should be provided, but the promise has exceeded performance in the eyes of many observers. John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation observed in a blog post:
“But there’s still a glaring, glaring omission. This strategy still doesn’t address existing information that isn’t open, and it doesn’t empower federal managers or anyone else to get new access to existing information.”
In Australia, a journalist in Australia who uses government databases, Sharona Coutts, recently lamented the lack of data, saying in an interview:
There’s a notion … that the data is out there. It is and it isn’t. There’s some data that is out there; there’s a lot that is not. It exists in government departments but they are hanging onto it. Even the data that’s out there, it might be in a form that’s rarely useful. It would take a huge amount of work to get it into a form that’s usable.
“There is so much more data there to get out,” in the opinion of one FOI veteran, but speaking of OD activists he added, “Not too many of them have hit the wall and said there is a lot behind the wall we want and can’t get.”
When that happens, he said, “Then we may have more natural alliance. Then we will be the people who can help them get that stuff.”
But he remained skeptical about the prospect of joint political action, stating, “They don’t want to be pulling our wagon, and they are not really an advocacy community.”
In Canada, Vincent Kazmierski, an assistant professor of law at Carleton University, Canada, said OD activists “specifically distance themselves” from the RTI debate “in order not to get bogged down.”
This is unfortunate, replied Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch and director of GoodOrg.ca Consulting in Canada, who contended that the major Canadian political parties “are hiding behind”promises to release more data while resisting amendments to the FOI law. He said that “unfortunately the open data activists are not pushing” for legal reforms. Both he and Conacher spoke to the 2011 meeting of international information commissioners.
Conacher hoped the open data movement “will create desire… that people will say, `Oh I can get this,’ and then will start saying, `Why can’t I see this, why can’t I see that?’ ”
In Kenya, the right to information is enshrined in the new constitution, but progress has been slow to draft an implementing law. A FOI activist in Kenya said, “In terms of the relationship between the FOI activists and open Data, there are a few complementary interventions emerging but most data people do not advocate for FOI.” He added, “We could benefit from your insights too how to bridge the gap.”
On the other hand, open data advocates were involved in the passage of the Brazilian law and are active in monitoring its implementation. In Spain, the leading OD group, Civio, is working with traditional FOI groups for a FOI law.
Evidence of Convergence?
There are a variety of signs of gradual blending of the two communities, outside of the OGP context
The use of technology to facilitate the submission of FOI requests and to warehouse responses has been put to use in at least a dozen countries. In some places, such as Germany, these website are run by OD organizations.
Some new transparency groups are often hybrids from the OD and FOI communities, for example in Austria and Italy. The umbrella access group in Latin America, Alianza Regional por la Libre Expresión e Información, has been working on some OD matters. The major FOI group in Mexico has sponsored open data activities (see below).
Competition or Synergy?
The enthusiasm among governments for such things as creating government data dashboards sometimes has annoyed FOI activists.
The vibrancy of the OD movement has attracted substantial funding, although no good census exists to track OD funding or to compare it with support for other transparency causes.
In Ghana, the World Wide Web Foundation has underwritten a government information portal in early 2012, which some FOI activists saw as an unfair reward for a government that continues to stall on passage of a FOI bill.
Kenya drew substantial praise for its OD effort, but still has not passed a FOI law. Saudia Arabia’s open data portal was recently complimented, even though no one expects Saudia Arabia will adopt a FOI law any time soon.
Are OD and FOI reform efforts competitive, synergistic?
“You can do open data without transparency and transparency without open data; in fact, it’s quite easy to do so, but… if you really want to do open data well, you need to put transparency and accountability at the core,” according to Jose M. Alonso, Program Manager, Open Data, World Wide Web Foundation.
The Web Foundation includes an assessment of the FOI environment in its six-dimension feasibility studies to determine a country’s readiness for an open government data (OGD) project. Having a FOI law is not prerequisite.
“FOI and OGD are related topics but FOI law is not required to do OGD,” Alonso said. He elaborated: “In many cases, even with FOI law, that’s not enough to do OGD properly. It may help until a certain extent but you typically need much more. In my experience so far, OGD projects (when done well) help improve proactive disclosure.”
The foundation’s study of the situation Ghana in May 2011 credited the government’s support for a law positively. Since then the president’s pledge to pass a law has been ignored by his own party that rules in parliament.
The foundation has supported OD efforts in Chile, which has a FOI law, and just received Ford Foundation support for a feasibility study in Indonesia, which also has one.
Some Cooperation Seen in U.S.
In the United States, the efforts to pass laws on data formats and related matters have been spearheaded by OD activists, sometimes with, but often without, the support of traditional advocates of FOI, such as media groups.
One such bill in California, SB 1002, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Leland Yes of San Francisco) has run into trouble. It would require agencies to provide electronic records in an open, searchable formats. The bill was initially promoted by OD activists (the lead group has the slogan of “Wired to Share”), but came to have broader support. In August, the bill was “gutted” by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in August, which asked for more study of the costs of the proposal, according to a report by the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA), leaving it unlikely to pass. The objections came despite express language that states agencies would not be required to incur any costs to comply with the bill, but opponents argued that the bill would require huge investments to provide searchable data, according to the CNPA.
“There is definitely a broad crossover in terms of support for the bill, including a lot of FOI advocates (like the CNPA),” activist Adriel Hampton, a leading proponent of the bill, wrote FreedomInfo.org. “I can’t speak to a two-way street since I haven’t been asked to sign on to any FOI reforms. As a former journalist and investigator as well as a technologist, I’m generally in favor of more open records.”
On the other hand, FreedomInfo.org asked a leading FOI activist in Texas if he was involved in an effort to pass an OD ordinance in Austin. “I’m not aware of such an effort by anyone in Austin,” replied Keith Elkins, Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
A New York Story
New York City’s Local Law 11 of 2012 “established the world’s first truly comprehensive `Freedom of Data’ law, according to a leading advocate Philip Ashlock, whose job is to “craft civic technology and coordinate local level open governance initiatives at OpenPlans.org,” and in August became a Presidential Innovation Fellow.
“NYC’s new law comes far closer to establishing a modern open data policy with the scope and force of FOI than anything that’s come before it,” he has written in a work-in-progress description. In particular he stressed that the bill is more comprehensive in mandating data disclosue than OD bills elsewhere.
The bill passed easily, with support from a wide variety of groups, Ashlock said, “I think one of the most significant things responsible for bringing this all together has been the formation of a really unique group called the New York City Transparency Working Group (NYC TWG). The TWG is unique because it united a number of well established civic groups with organizations that have a stronger focus on technology and data management.
Not all of those in the New York state FOI community were impressed.
The NYC bill is confusing and potentially too costly for the city, fears Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government, a unit housed in the New York State Department of State that oversees and advises the government, public, and news media on Freedom of Information, Open Meetings, and Personal Privacy Protection Laws.
The committee in its report last year urged the state to provide more proactive disclosure, and this year may add open data requirements to its reform agenda, Freeman said.
He said state officials are initiating the release of more data, in good formats, because it makes sense. The state health agency provided more information and saw its FOI requests drop 40 percent.
New York state journalists, eager to do database journalism, have been well-served by progressive technological developments at the state government level, according to Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, so the group has not made a state OD bill a priority. The association doesn’t get involved with local laws. This year the group’s state legislative priority was data-related. It lobbied for a bill to reverse a court decision that restricted public access to public employee pension data, now apparently being held up.
A Mexican Story
Finding examples of FOI and OD activists working together at this point is a difficult scavenger hunt, but there are some examples.
Ramírez Federico, a physicist that works as Lead Programmer at Fundar’s Center of Analysis and Research, made a case for combined activity.
Fundar, a Mexican NGO founded in 1999 and focused on democracy and citizen participation but is the leading national group on FOI. In August it sponsored OpenDataMX – a conference, hackathon and app contest. Developers were provided with 32 different datasets collected by various NGOs that they were encouraged to use, and they had 36 hours to turn something around before judging.
“I don’t know either of any other effort in México to connect this communities, we are trying to raise awareness of the possible synergies both communities could create for the shared agenda which is an Open Government,” explained Federico.
Seeing opportunities for collaboration, he explained further:
I don’t see a conflict between both communities as much as a lack of opportunities to communicate and work together. The challenge is specially difficult to solve on the open data community side because it is driven more by technological interests than political or advocacy ones. The reason for this is that a couple of years ago there was no such thing as an open data community in México and we ignited it by trying to allure open source software development communities into open data challenges and its potential to solve social issues with the help of social scientists.
I think besides natural thematic bias between both communities the key difference is that while FOI is request-driven, with legal disputes and intricacies. Open data is not request driven, through public pressure, with events such as hackathons and its outcomes, can be instrumental in ensuring that more and more data be made available online. Both are trying to get the same: government transparency, but technical with such a steep learning curve.
FOI and Open Data do not conflict, but can reinforce each other. Open Data movements currently show the possibilities once citizens get access to more data, and FOI tries to guarantee such access by law. To oversimplify it, FOI could talk the talk and Open Data could walk the walk.
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