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New York State Joins GitHub to Get Feedback on Open Data Policy

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, June 14 2013

New York is the first state to publish an initial draft of its open data guidelines on GitHub to seek feedback from the public, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in a press release Thursday.

The publication of the state's Open Data Handbook follows Cuomo's executive order in March that directed state agencies to review and catalog their data and make it available to the public at Open.ny.gov, a revamped open data platform unveiled at the time. The executive order calls on state agencies to create a catalog of "publishable data" by Aug. 5, post a schedule for uploading publishable data by Sept. 9, and establishes Nov. 6 as a deadline for the final version of the Open Data Handbook.

"It's super encouraging that they have a rough draft at this early stage of the process," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany. He added that his impression was that the state planned to go through several iterations of the draft. "What that tells us is that they're serious about taking public comment."

He applauded the state for taking an innovative approach by publishing the handbook to GitHub. "[With government] we always cheer when they try new things even if they don't work. We're pretty excited to see New York be the first state to use GitHub as a crowdsourcing platform, following the White House's lead," he said.

But he emphasized that the state should also think of ways to make the feedback process more broadly accessible to people with little technical background and non-developers, for example through a text editor such as Prose.io, and the availability of an ad-hoc email address, especially since important aspects of the handbook focus on non-technical processes related to regulation and information policy.

"I like the Github approach because it's innovative and government has to be praised for trying new things," he said, even if it turns out not to be the right channel or platform to engage with policy experts or other members of the public.

He emphasized that one of the most important aspects of the policy would be how strong its mandate is for data release.

"If the final handbook is issued and effectively has the force of regulation and it doesn't include a clear mandate, agencies will have much less incentive to follow it, all they will have is the hoops they have to go through, without the push to do that," he said. "That is really, really important. This is the key piece as to whether Open NY succeeds or not."

Kaehny said it made sense that Cuomo chose to implement an open data policy via an executive order rather than through legislation as in New York City, given the level of dysfunction in the state legislature.

While there's room for improvement, the Reinvent Albany executive director says the Empire State is beating the rest of the country on digital openness.

"The scale of what New York is doing is just ten times better than what anybody else is doing," he said.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, praised the news and the possibility of greater public engagement.

"Here we see the opportunity for people anywhere to engage in an exchange of views, commentary and suggestions for improvement," he said.

In the past, he noted, the public has always been invited to send in comments when agencies issue regulations.

"The distinction is with this step forward, everybody will be able to see what everybody else is suggesting, and they will be able to do so instantly," he said, adding the people participating will more than likely be experts in the field, benefiting the level of conversation.

Freeman especially praised the state's Health Department for its pioneer Open Data efforts with its METRIX platform, which makes state health data available to members of the public, health care providers and consumers. The department received the first annual Data Liberation Award earlier this month from the national Health Data Consortium at the Health Datapalooza Conference in Washington D.C. According to an agency press release, Health Data NY, first launched in August 2011, "is the only known open data site in the U.S. devoted solely to state health data, with accompanying metadata, customized visualizations, and targeted public health messaging."