Saturday, May 14, 2016

Open Data: The Freedom of Information Act, on steroids

Techdirt has a great little article on how open data in New York found about $1.7 million in parking tickets that were issued to cars parked legally. That's great money if you can find it. As the article notes, the findings by an analyst working with a database of parking tickets were communicated to the city. That led to policy changes at the policy department and the city. 

When citizens have access to data to show how agencies make decisions in response to current policy or policy changes, we can see how our government works over time. We can find patterns of behavior on the part of people who work in the government, people who work for all us. We can see if current public policy works or if it doesn't. And if public policy doesn't work, we can change the policy.

I'm a big fan of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act, as well as their analogs at the state level. I've filed more than 300 requests for documents myself at both state and federal levels. You can learn a lot about how government works when you ask for the documents they create to do their work.

FOIA is great if you want to learn about one particular issue or one particular person. It is common for people to send personal requests - requests for their own records. Other requests include documents about how a law is enforced, how agency decisions are made, and records of the decision making process. But one thing you with FOIA can't do is ask an agency to compile records in a format like a database.

Open data laws make that possible. Open data laws require agencies to make certain sets of information available to all of us. Free for the asking. These are databases cleaned of any personally identifying information, but provide enough information to tell us how an agency carries out its work.

While it is easy to bemoan the ability of the government to watch us, they still work for us, and if we're careful, we can still tell the government how to do its job. Open data laws are proof that it's still possible. Databases are sort of a double-edged sword. But once you have one in hand, it's only a matter of putting that database through a few queries to see if any patterns emerge.

There are entire websites and organizations (like this one) dedicated to collecting and curating collections of databases retrieved through open data laws. The United States government has an overarching policy of making data available to anyone who wants to see how they are doing their job. The result of that policy is data.gov, the home of open data for the federal government. Granted, the public data available doesn't have any personally identifying information, nor should it, but with it, we can get a high level view of how they are doing their jobs.

Voting is just one aspect of being a citizen.  We vote to decide who writes the laws and who cuts the checks. We engage in rulemaking processes when an agency proposes regulations to interpret and enforce the laws. We determine if a law is good or bad when we go to court, when we sit in a jury, or sue for redress of grievances.

When we get open data from our governments at all levels, we get the results of our actions and are in a better position to make the government responsive to all of us. Even if we may believe that the government only listens to 1% of us, when used effectively, open data makes the government more responsive to all of us.
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