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A Legislative Framework in Place, Oklahoma Says OK to Open Data

BY Nick Judd | Friday, February 11 2011

Oklahoma joined the ranks of states with open data portals this week when launched on Wednesday.

The portal launch is a splashy public milestone in the long, dull, and generally boring-but-important process of modernizing how a state does business and interacts with its constituents. State Rep. Jason Murphey, a Republican who represents Guthrie in the statehouse, told me Wednesday that the public data portal is the result of a legislative framework and a lot of pre-requisite work, the bulk of which happened last year.

"What we did was we have an existing board at the state level that assists agencies with web-based [or] related subjects," Murphey told me. "They have some regulatory power over state agencies' access to the state portal."

Last year, the state legislature established a framework that required that board — the state's Governmental Technology Review Board, with appointees selected by the legislature and the governor — to give state agencies open technology standards to provide "web-based interactivity to state government services;" a schedule to agencies would have to follow to provide information to the public through open data in standard formats and through APIs; allowing the board to hold apps contests; and creating a mechanism for the public to apply for state agencies to make specific data sets public in this fashion, rather than available only through freedom of information law requests.

This is a major public milestone in that process, Murphey told me.

"I think this is our first baby step," he said. "The idea was, let's just get the framework in place ... I can't tell that there's, like, a statewide statutory framework in place, actually, in any other state."

In fact, one is in the works in New Hampshire, where another group of technology-minded legislators is also rewiring government in ways that force it to adopt the kinds of standard practices and processes that software developers want.

Gov20Radio was the first one with the launch of the open data portal in Oklahoma, and has had some of the people inside Oklahoma who made this happen — state Rep. Jason Murphey, CIO Alex Pettit and Sid Burgess, a House appointee on the state's Governmental Technology Review Board — on its programs in the past. The state announced the launch in a press release on Thursday.

But the real story here isn't the open data portal — that's a feature, so to speak, not the application itself. The takeaway for state-level open government geeks and people who want to make state governments more efficient and transparent actually seems to be that using legislation to do it is an effective approach, and there are enough legislators in statehouses now of the right age and acumen — Murphey, 33, runs a business that does development for content management systems, and he counts State Rep. David Derby, a 32-year-old forensic chemist, and State Sen. Clark Jolley, a 40-year-old lawyer, among his colleagues in the legislature who are working to use technology to improve government efficiency — to get it passed.

And while transparency initiatives in New Hampshire and Oklahoma stem primarily from Republican-sponsored legislation, that isn't always the case. In New Hampshire, state lawmaker Seth Cohn, one of the people involved in writing the laws in the works, says initiatives there stem from a very libertarian-minded philosophy that views transparency as a means to keep tabs on, and shrink, government. Murphey described the same desires, but does not paint himself as libertarian, per se: Open data, Murphey says, could lead to metrics that would allow the state to track employee efficiency, make better policy decisions and make them more quickly, and more closely track the results of procurement decisions.

(Update: Murphey was not as vocal about libertarian ideals in my conversations with him, but like Cohn, endorsed Ron Paul for President.)

In New York, a group of staff brought in by the Democratic state Senate leadership made the senate more open — rather than the state — in efforts to increase accountability and access.

The Oklahoma state legislature was not likely to transform itself to be similarly open, Murphey admitted to me. But he has a bill in the works that would make the legislature more transparent.

"Traditionally, legislatures, we have a closed caucus system and so you have a part of government that takes place behind closed doors where legislators can take a private position behind closed doors and take another position in public," Murphey said. "That's a luxury some legislators really guard and my bill does away with that."

I asked Murphey if he the legislature had discussed making the bill and legislator data it already made public through its bill search portal more developer-friendly, similar to what New Hampshire is doing, by releasing a nightly data dump, or New York, which offers an improved search engine. Murphey said the Oklahoma legislature hadn't considered it, but could.

"That's something we could hardwire into the law," he said.