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A New Open Data Push from the Governor in New York State

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, January 10 2013

In his State of the State speech Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would implement a comprehensive statewide open data portal as part of a renewed focus on transparency.

Called Open New York and culled from his list of campaign promises, the initiative aims to "harness technology to show how taxpayer money is being spent, showcase the great resources of the state, and foster productive engagement with government," Cuomo promised in his prepared remarks.

As attorney general, Cuomo launched Project Sunlight, a comprehensive online database of information related to campaign finance, lobbying activity and state contracts. As governor he hadded an "online town hall" platform, CitizenConnects, which lists public meetings around the state. Additional websites describe the Tappan Zee Bridge project and provide information about starting a business in New York.

"Our state government possesses vast treasure troves of valuable information and reports: from health, business and public safety data to information on parks, recreation, labor, and transportation," Cuomo said.

He continued:

Too often, this information is in government file cabinets, or in documents that aren't electronically searchable, or scattered throughout state agencies and their websites," he said. "Open New York will provide easy, single-stop access to statewide and agency-level data, reports, statistics, compilations and information. Data will be presented in a common, downloadable, easy-to-access format, and will be searchable and mappable. The Open New York web portal will allow researchers, citizens, business and the media direct access to high-value data, which will be continually added to and expanded, so these groups can use the data to innovate for the benefit of all New Yorkers.

Cuomo said that the state would sponsor app competitions to encourage students and technologists to develop practical uses for state data.

"Budget data, which is already posted online, will be posted in machine readable and graphical formats, making access easier and more impactful for citizens and researchers alike," he added.

The governor suggested that posting government online would allow "the public" to "locate inefficiencies and duplicate expenses." He also proffered that putting data online would reduce expenses associated with complying with Freedom of Information Law requests.

"Benefits come not only from direct use of the data, but also from the return on investment that comes when private citizens and journalists use data to generate useful apps and to evaluate government performance. Quick and efficient data access can also be useful in disaster response and preparation. The benefits of increased online transparency significantly outweigh the costs of putting information online."

The return to digital transparency as an issue, which Cuomo campaigned on to win the governor's chair, comes after a long history of criticism about the governor's transparency track record.

InnovationTrail, a collection of public media outlets reporting on upstate New York, reported early last year that CitizenConnects had failed to live up to its promise. Marie Cusick from WMHT criticized the online town halls feature, noting lack of a schedule about livechats, the moderation of questions and answers based on talking points. A map showing state officials' travels was jumbled and many of the trips were many months old. In addition, she noted that it was unclear when to expect responses after submitting an idea via the site or if anyone read them, and that many comments on Cuomo's official Facebook page were unanswered while the Twitter feed rarely retweeted comments. Email updates on topics she had signed up for hadn't materialized in two weeks from when she signed up. Cuomo's public schedules were vague, she wrote, listing him as being "in the New York City area," there were no future schedules and the past ones were five months old.

In July, the New York Daily News and the New York Times reported on the lack of a Cuomo BlackBerry and email trail. Also in July, the Cuomo administration sent a strongly-worded 2,200 word letter to the New York Times for its reporting on his relationship with a state lobbying group.

In September, the Cuomo administration updated the CitizensConnect website with five months of the governor's schedule, bringing the "schedules pretty much up to date," the Gotham Gazette reported. The administration released another batch of schedules in December covering September and October.

Cuomo has also been criticized for his tightly controlled public image and a track record of governing in New York's signature three-men-in-a-room, behind-closed-doors style — as with the deal that secured gay marriage in the state.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo also made proposals to support technology transfer in the state by setting up ten high-tech incubator hot spots, creating an Innovation NY Network and an Innovation Venture Capital Fund. He also emphasized making New York a leader in the clean technology economy, such as through investing in an electric car network.

He also made proposals related to campaign finance reform, including a law that would require many political contributions over $500 to be reported within 48 hours, or within 24 hours near Election Day. He also expressed support for public financing, lower contribution limits, early voting and making ballots more readable. Cuomo announced the implementation of online voter registration in New York last year.

Cuomo also announced that the state would launch a Cyber Security Initiative "that will include the creation of a new, first-in-the-nation facility that brings together monitoring of both the cyber and physical aspects of critical infrastructure in New York State."

Although these proposals hit the public agenda two years after Cuomo campaigned on them, transparency advocates are optimistic that they will now be acted upon. John Kaehny, executive director of the reform group Reinvent Albany, said he believes Cuomo's policy advisers "really get it." And while open data initiatives elsewhere have been hobbled by bureaucratic tangles, New York's information technology is consolidated under a single leadership team, Kaehny said.

"Now you have the capacity in New York state government to actually do some cool stuff, I'm optimistic that we'll see some things over the next four to six months," Kaehny said.