Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In New York, Landmark Open Data Legislation Will Soon Be Up for a Vote

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, February 28 2012

Photo: Shutterstock

The New York City Council is expected to vote on a far-reaching open data bill on Wednesday that would codify many of the principles articulated by open government advocates in recent years.

If made law, the bill would go further than San Francisco's pioneering 2010 open data law in depth and scope, obliging agencies to provide data online in machine-readable format though a single, citywide portal. But perhaps in a nod to the amount of work involved in working through large volumes of existing data, city agencies won't have to make theirs available through the city's portal until the end of 2018.

The city's move is the latest step taken in the United States as part of a wider movement by open government advocates to remake government services in the Web 2.0 age. While the specifics can be esoteric, the impact of the changes are expected to be profound. The goal of publishing machine-readable information using common technical standards is to enable both the public and government employees to make cities better, whether that's through the new raw material for a civic-oriented business to more strategically and efficiently making services available to citizens.

This bill is the result of "many, many hours spent between the lawyers of the Bloomberg administration, and the lawyers on the city council," said New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, its chief sponsor.

In an interview on Monday, she said that while the Mayor's office has made some city data available online, this law would ensure that data across all city agencies would be made public and searchable.

"This data would be social services, and police, and things that you didn't know that you wanted to know about," she said.

Addressing a key complaint by open government advocates about unsearchable PDFs, the law specifies that public data sets have to be "accessible to external search capabilities." It also gives the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) six months to publish a technical standards manual that will guide agencies' process of publishing the information that they generate on the web, and make it machine-readable. DoITT will have to explain the reasoning behind its choices, and "shall include a plan to adopt or utilize a web application programming interface that permits application programs to request and receive public data sets directly from the web portal." DoITT will also be obliged to consult with web standards bodies to keep current with open standards.

While the law gives agencies six years to get all their information online and searchable, they'll have to start reporting to the mayor and the public about what data sets they do have within one and a half years after the passage of the law, and submit a compliance report within two years. The new law also says that the data is to be made available in one central location at, and that DoITT should actively solicit feedback from its community of users about its utility.

There's no penalty for the agencies for not complying, but Brewer expects the public feedback mechanism to exert a significant amount of force.

"It's a little bit of an honor system, but New Yorkers are going to scream and yell if something isn't right, and then the Mayor's office will have to take the appropriate action," she said.

At the same time as the law tries to make the city's data open and interpretable, the city's soon-to-be new policy makes clear it's not a free-for-all. Information about agencies' internal deliberative processes, procurement and negotiating positions, for example, are exempted.

The New York City Council has been mulling over the legislation for years, holding hearings about open data and open tech standards in 2009 and 2010. And they haven't been alone.

In California, for example, open government advocate Adriel Hampton is pushing the state and city to define open data too. On Monday, he praised the New York City legislation, but bemoaned the timeline.

"The New York open data law has some great provisions - a centralized home for data sets, a requirement that data be accessible to search engines, and a provision for public input on desired data sets," he said after taking a look. "One drawback that reflects governments general inability to move at the speed of technology is that the law has an implementation timeline that stretches out seven years, through the end of 2018."

Stephen Romalewski, an open data advocate who is also the director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said the bill largely accepts what the administration is already doing — but gives them years to do it.

"They've been negotiating this for almost three years now," Romalewski said. "They used to have a bill that actually pushed the city to have a more visionary approach, and now they've stepped back and said, all right, the administration is doing this and we're going to accept that and write that into the bill."

Romalewski said that during public comment on the bill, advisory groups had called for the naming of a "chief data officer," someone who would take responsibility for "ensuring that agencies develop datasets, publicize them, make them accessible in meaningful ways." That requirement didn't make it into the bill.

The city has a chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, but her portfolio has been more focused on social media and on improving the experience someone has when trying to interact with New York City agencies online.

Meanwhile, the City of Chicago has a chief data officer who works with data users across agencies and shepherds the city's ambitious data releases.

"I'm looking at this from a distance, but in Chicago it seems like that's what happening," Romalewski said. "They have a chief technology officer, they have a chief data officer, and they say that's the direction they're moving in."

On the other hand, the bill does call for a comprehensive inventory of the data the city already has — and that, he said, was a step forward.

The New York City bill, Int 0029-2010, was voted out of the council's technology committee Tuesday and is expected come before the entire City Council at a stated meeting Wednesday.

This post has been updated.
This post has been corrected: An earlier version incorrectly attributed to Stephen Romalewski the idea that legislation had called for the naming of a "chief data officer." He said instead that it came up during discussion of the legislation.
With Nick Judd

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.