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Open Data at the Golden Gate, But Transparency? Maybe Not Yet

BY Nick Judd | Friday, November 19 2010


San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signs open data legislation into law. Photo: Courtesy Gavin Newsom / twitpic

San Francisco, Ca., made the news last week when its board of supervisors passed an open-data law, one-upping a directive Mayor Gavin Newsom issued last year to make the data public.

Newsom signed the law yesterday and — typical Newsom — made sure to tweet about it, including a link to a photo. (Seems like Twitter-post-with-twitpic is the new press-release-with-photo.) But transparency hawks at the Sunlight Foundation aren't really impressed. As with the federal open government directive of 2009, the law in San Francisco now is that government strongly consider making things public, and comes with caveats and exceptions.

Sunlight's John Wonderlich says this is but doesn't push far enough for a truly open government:

The ordinance now mandates that agencies have to try to follow the standards set by an IT oversight body, to release some information based on an audit of some subset of public data.

This is the language of the low-hanging fruit — the kind of aspirational mandate that isn’t really a mandate at all, but more of a statement of goals and principles, lofty rhetoric with a roadmap made up of other road maps, and plans for other plans.

Again, this declaration, and the others like it, aren’t inappropriate. Their effects probably vary based on the context, based on the actual commitment of everyone involved, from government officials to citizens.

Wonderlich goes on to say that even as a first step, this kind of law is worth it. But it seems as though what he thinks this law is for and what everyone else thinks its for are two different things. Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal both focused on the data-as-21st-century-precious-commodity angle, and Fast Company's E.B. Boyd observes that the ordinance itself highlights the way opening data might encourage developers to make something for nothing.

"As the ordinance says," Boyd writes, "it benefits the city via the 'mobilization of San Francisco’s high-tech workforce ... to create useful civic tools at no cost to the City.'"

Carl Malamud calls this country's laws "America's Operating System" because they describe the function of government, but there's another analog here: operating systems don't do what they are supposed to do, they do what they are programmed to do, and those are sometimes two different things.

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