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Is New York City The Best Place In the World For Open Data? We Find Out March 7

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 22 2013

City Council discretionary funding, 2009-2013, built on city data. Source: Gothamist

Last year, the New York City Council passed a bill touted as a groundbreaking step forward for open data that would make New York a leader among 21st-century cities. On March 7, city officials will have their first chance to show whether they're up to the challenge.

The legislation requires city agencies to consolidate, by March 7, the data they release online in a single web portal. By September, the city must submit a compliance plan setting a timeline for when agencies can make additional data sets available. Agencies have until December 31, 2018, to either finish publishing all of the data that's already available to the public in other forms or explain why data sets cannot be made available. The city must also post an annual update to its compliance plan starting in July 2014 until all public data sets have been made available. The law goes further than previous legislation by requiring agencies to do so rather than making it optional, but not that much further — there's no penalty for agencies that don't comply.

Advocates say the law is groundbreaking because it codifies the concept of open data into the city's administrative code — the idea that a 21st-century city should communicate in a 21st-century way in the name of collaboration and transparency.

"I think there are many people within the city who are trying to meet the spirit of the law," said John Kaehny, executive director of the transparency group Reinvent Albany. "Will every agency have every data set on the website in machine-readable format [by March 7]? No, probably not, but there's enough clear activity for it to be very encouraging."

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who spearheaded last year's legislation, explained that she had been part of regular meetings between a coalition of good government and technology groups and the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, or DoITT.

Called the the New York City Transparency Working Group, the coalition — of advocacy organizations such as Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters, NYPIRG, and Reinvent Albany, and technology groups such as Open Plans and Open NY Forum — was also instrumental in passing the bill, she said.

Officials inside the city are also talking to each other about how to make the bill work, said Kaehny, who is also co-chair of the Transparency Working Group.

"Most if not all agencies have data coordinators who have been working with DoITT," Kaehny said. "We're pretty encouraged."

Beyond the close circle of activists and officials, Kaehny said, the city established a wiki to get feedback from members of the public about the city's existing Socrata open data platform and about technical standards the city is also required to establish under the new law.

Activists are also planning to use the first March 7 deadline to drum up interest in open data from community boards, the city's 52 unpaid advisory panels comprising appointed community leaders, and other neighborhood organizations. The idea, at least from their perspective, is to try to get neighborhood leaders as excited about what the city is going to release as the city officials who are releasing it.

"We're pretty impressed with the culture within DoITT." Kaehny said. "All the law does is set technical standards to help support that culture. It can't impose a new culture, but it can help foster it. The next mayor has to continue to encourage that open government culture within city agencies."

But he added that more legislation would be necessary to create short-term incremental deadlines after March 7 and September of this year. He said that work has already begun with the City Council and parts of the administration to begin drafting an Open Data Law 2.0.

Brewer also said that she was interested in further legislation that would include information on city agencies' contacts with profit and-nonprofit vendors.

The city's implementation of the open data law may have been delayed by the winter storm Sandy as senior officials turned their attention to disaster response, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has signaled an interest in making open data a focus of his remaining months in office.

In his recent State of the City address, Bloomberg said that the city's data analytics team will launch a new platform to improve how agencies share information. He said he would name Michael Flowers, director of analytics at the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, as the city's first Chief Analytics Officer, and promised that he would "make as much of this data as possible public, so that the tech community can hold us accountable."