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With Rules Reform, New York City Council Aims for Open API

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 15 2014

The New York City Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution amending its rules to require the Council Speaker to make available legislative tracking information data and discretionary funding data to the public in a machine-readable format, and City Council members and open government advocates see the changes as a basis for making legislative information available through an open API. The resolution also calls on the Council Speaker to develop a periodically updated public technology plan on improving public access to Council material and meetings.

"I am working to ensure that civic hackers like those at the Sunlight Foundation can build an open API with bulk downloads so the transparency the rules and people demand becomes a reality in the coming months," City Council member Ben Kallos, chair of the Government Operations Committee, said in a statement e-mailed to techPresident. "This means that the Council is committed to pursuing an open API," his Communications Director Sarah Anders added in the e-mail, though she noted that there were few details at this point.

Until now, the data has only been available through the Legistar platform managed by Granicus.

"Depending on the implementation, the open data sections of rules reform are a good step forward," David Moore, executive director of the Participatory Politics Foundation, wrote in an e-mail. He has regularly testified at City Council hearings in support of more Council transparency, and praised Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council member Brad Lander, chair of the Rules Committee, and Council member Kallos for their leadership on the issue and including tech developers in the deliberative process.

Moore pointed to a list of open government data principles crafted by open government advocates in 2008 which emphasize that government data should be "complete," available from the primacy source, timely, widely accessible without registration, machine processable, non-proprietary and license free. Noting the language of the resolution, Moore wrote that the rules reform seemed to meet the principles of completeness, primary and wide accessibility as well as machine-processability. But he added that there was still uncertainty and lack of detail on the question of timeliness, and the extent to which practically the data would be available free of registration through non-proprietary and license-free means.

"Other aspects of implementation matter a lot as well - hopefully this language will result in real bulk data access for the public to info in NYC's Legistar, and we can contribute enhancements and suggested data sets and help with evangelizing it," he wrote. "No other U.S. city publishes its legislative data via an open API, and I'm not aware of any cities that make legislative bulk data available until now - though other cities may easily surpass NYC in short order, depending on the implementation and if any launch open API's to complement bulk access."

In a hearing on the reforms last week, Moore had explained to City Council members the importance of Open API access supplementing basic bulk data access.

"An API is an adjunct to the bulk data, but it's a really important and useful adjunct, and it's one that the developers want to use," he said. "Instead of having to download a library of information and pull out what you want, you'd be able to display and spread the information that you're looking for if New York City was to implement an Open API for its municipal legislation." He also described how an API would let government watchdog groups track legislative issues and see when bills or resolutions are coming before a committee.

In other testimony, Noel Hidalgo, executive director of betaNYC, New York City's Code for America brigade called for the creation of a City Council Chief Information or Technology Officer, the hosting of civic technology town halls and the use of open technology.

At last week's hearing, Council members and Moore discussed some of the challenges the Council faces in implementing an open API. Kallos had noted earlier in the hearing that the Sunlight Foundation was interested in providing an open API. Moore explained that an API from Sunlight would rely on a scraping process that would involve Sunlight going the extra steps of "going through the website everyday, and seeing what's new, storing it, sorting it, categorizing it, and then putting it back out to the public," while it would be most valuable for the Council to be the "primary data publisher about what's going on in their legislative actions, and what's happening with different issues."

Lander suggested that in principle, City Council members supported that ultimate goal, but noted that the Council would need to use an off-the-shelf product. "We're not good at developing our own software here in the New York City Council," he said. Moore said he thought there were comparable software solutions available, though he would have to do more research on off-the-shelf options, while he emphasized that the Granicus company has been a partner to the open data community, and a co-sponsor of events with the Sunlight Foundation.

"I think we'd be very happy to get there," Lander said at the hearing. "It's a little scary to write a rule that says, 'We are going to get there in the absence of knowing that the product is available, and we won't be able to achieve it because we can't get the product in place.' So I think you're pushing us on it is very helpful, and I think that we can continue to work together to find a way to do it that is feasible and affordable and we know the timeframe."

In written testimony, Reinvent Albany had also emphasized the importance of an API, and advocacy group Citizens Union highlighted the transparency measures in praising the passage of the new rules.

Also, at Wednesday's Council meeting, Kallos and Council member James Vacca, chair of the Technology Committee, introduced legislation on behalf of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to establish an OpenFOIL platform, as also reported in Gotham Gazette and Capital New York. Many open government groups such as Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, NYPIRG, and betaNYC praised the introduction of the law in a release from Brewer. Capital New York looked at the implementation of FOIL platforms in other cities, how it could help agencies prioritize what data to make available online and how it would impact the work of local journalists.

Disclosure: TechPresident's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.