Last Tuesday, New York City took a double leap into the future of open government. The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) released preliminary policies, technical standards and guidelines under the new Local Law 11, which requires city agencies to publish all public data in one online portal in a machine-readable format.
And it did so in the form of a wiki, an interactive document that enables any registered user to add to or amend the draft policies, so the public and city agencies can literally write in their own version of what they think the new rules should be. All revisions are saved under a page’s “history” tab so changes are recorded.
Think of it as Wikipedia for government. As far as anyone can recall, the wiki is the first of its kind for a city administration.
The wiki format, said, DoITT’s director of research and development Andrew Nicklin, “is an attempt to drive things in an interactive and iterative manner. Why pass a Word doc around when we can all make changes collaboratively?” The process also lets the agencies that will be answerable to the new law be a part of the conversation, he said.
The wiki will be open for comments for the next couple of months, at which point DoITT staff will compile the input, review it internally and issue final data standards in September.
DoITT will also be hosting public comment events in the non-virtual world, where people can come and give in-person feedback. “The idea there is that people who aren’t technologically savvy or don’t want to interact in that way can do it in person,” Nicklin said.
The wiki already has fans among good-government groups. “The comment process and addressing it through a public wiki is incredibly interesting, innovative and creative,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and member of the New York City Transparency Working Group.
In the traditional public comment process, “you don’t get to see what anyone else has done,” Kaehny noted. “You have no idea how your comments will be received.”
This process has the power to set a precedent for how the city receives public comment, he said, to show Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successor that agencies are stakeholders in the transparency process, too, and that openness isn’t a fad that will disappear with a new administration. “It really can’t be overemphasized that this is an election year,” Kaehny said. “If this becomes ‘Oh, this is just a Bloomberg thing,’ then that’s a shame.”
Engaging the public in developing the standards is particularly important because the Local Law 11 lacks any enforcement mechanism besides public feedback.
The initial version of the wiki policies already includes elements that would ingrain open data practices into city agencies. The most notable is the addition of an Open Data Coordinator at each agency that would identify data sets to include on the portal, handle their delivery, and address public feedback — a feature conspicuously absent from the original language of the law.
The draft policies as offered by DoITT also suggest that all new technology projects going forward must have the funding, staffing and tasks in place to open their data to the public.
Proposed technical standards, meanwhile, also include language that requires datasets to include corresponding metadata, which let users verify the source, reliability and other key details about the data.
If open-government advocacy groups and interested members of the public actively participate, they have the potential to influence a huge part of how New York City publishes data.
Said Nicklin, “I think it will drive how we set the stands for technology projects for the long term.”