Reinvent Albany and other open government advocates welcomed today’s launch of the “New York Open Government,” website by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The site is an updated version of the Project Sunlight site created in 2007 by then AG Andrew Cuomo. Nyopengovernment.com provides the public with downloadable information on campaign contributions, lobbying, and state contracts.
From the press release:
“Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “New York Open Government will help the public keep an eye on what their government is doing in order to deter corruption and increase confidence in the public sector. This site is a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers demanding up-to-date and comprehensive information about their government.”
New York Open Government now allows users to search across multiple databases and display results on one screen. Users can also tailor searches with multiple criteria to easily find what they’re looking for. To facilitate more complex analysis by academic researchers and the media, the site has more options to export data, and significantly more fields of data available. Data will be frequently updated, and new features will encourage users to share information from the database through social media programs.
According to the AG’s office, today’s relaunch should be understood as the first step in an ongoing effort to harness the power of the internet to make government more open and accountable. Next steps should include making the data on the site available via API, so that researchers, civil society groups and apps developers can create new ways of using it. The AG’s office has had to expend a significant effort to get the data from other state agencies, and should be seeking to get the most public value from it.
The first broad idea is that the most successful technology initiatives “align” the interests of a government agency and the public. For instance, the best government websites are the ones used by government and the public. Both groups demand continuous improvement from the site. (Yes, websites are the basic information platform for the foreseeable future.) Another example of “alignment” is New York City’s Bus time, bus tracker. Bus riders and bus managers can see where all the buses on a given route are, but managers can access an extra layer of information.
The second broad idea is that harnessing government Information Technology is an essential, and inexpensive, economic development strategy. “Egovernment” practices like online transactions, permitting and information, make it easy to do business here. Putting government data online, and making it easy to find and use encourages innovation.
Reinvent Albany has developed ten recommendations, drawing from practices already in use in other states and cities. Most can be done incrementally and at very low cost. They really call for a change of heart and willingness to try new things.
- Put all digital information subject to FOIL online in an easy to find and use format on agency sites. No more locked, unsearchable, pdf files. All “FOILable” digital information that isn’t personal should be available as a downloadable text or spreadsheet/CSV file depending on what it contains. Start with the most FOILed and otherwise information and go from there. Where possible, agencies should use an API layer, computer code that allows immediate streaming data from a website. The MTA has had huge success doing this with bus and subway trip data. There are dozens of state air, soil, water, road, bridge and public health data sets that should be made available this way.
- Pass an open data law like New York’s Local Law 11 which passed this spring with the strong support of the technology industry, the city’s information agency and transparency advocates. If the governor is opposed to a legislative mandate, he can issue an executive order to the same effect. Either way, open data software platforms like Ckan and Socrata are inexpensive, and can make huge amounts of government data usable, very quickly.
- Put all transactions completely online using web forms. Taxes, permits, fees, registration, charitable filings and annual forms, it should all be completely done online. This will save the state millions in processing costs, increase compliance, reduce errors, improve enforcement and reduce the cost of doing business in New York State. The Department of Tax and Finance is charging extra for paper income tax returns. Great idea. This is a win-win for the public and state government. Clerks that are laboring over mounds of paper can turn to ensuring that state rules and regulations are being followed — which in many areas, including Charitable organization compliance, they aren’t. (Hint — this would be a great hearing for the Investigations Committee.)
- Map everything. The State Liquor Authority recently posted an online map of all liquor licenses. A viewer can scroll around and zoom in and get info on every licensee and their violations. This map is a good idea, and the information is of great interest to the public. That map, plus a downloadable database, mobile version and what’s called an API, a tool that allows developers to directly access data, could be built for about $15,000 using open source software. (SLA paid more, but still a good project.) This is also a good an example of “alignment” since local police and SLA enforcement are also using the map.
- Put Freedom of Information requests and responses completely online, and use FOIL requests to help determine what state digital information is put online first. The Port Authority is now putting all FOIL responses online, so everyone can see every response. (This idea is marred by the PA making the responses really hard to find and search, but let’s take the good part.)
- Create and empower a technology czar to coordinate the state’s technology policy citizen centered initiatives, spread best practices, align public and intra- governmental technology efforts, promote open data efforts, collaborate with other levels of government and seek to fully exploit Information Technology for the public benefit. NY needs a center of gravity for IT thinking and innovation.
- Eliminate barriers to tax payer paid for state digital information by eliminating fees for all but the largest information users. State digital information is a form of public wealth that can help foster innovation, and gets more valuable the more people that use it. The MTA was right to give away bus and subway travel data for free so as to encourage software developers to create apps. Likewise, the state should think of free data as an economic development strategy.
- Buy open source software and join collaborative efforts with other states, the federal government and cities and towns, especially New York City. The current software purchase and licensing model is unaffordable and obsolete. NYS should be seeking to participate in the creation of civic software, as it is with the IRS’ online charitable filing system. Online, shared, FOIL management software is an obvious place to begin since small towns and counties could use the same system, as could NYC.
- Make informed decisions about IT. The state should aggressively gather, analyze and publicize information about state information usage. The state should use website analytics, phone and FOIL requests to create a picture of who is asking for what information. The CIOOFT did a great 2009 survey of state agency ecommerce and social media use. That should be an annual report, and should be expanded to include information about what information the public most frequently requests and FOIL’s. The state makes big strategic decisions about IT organization and contracting money based on scanty internal research.
- Use Content Management Systems like Drupal or WordPress for all state websites. Once these sites are set-up, non-technical staff can update pictures, blog posts or other content. This frees up state technologists to work on more pressing problems and ensures more timely and useful content for the public.
Read the full text of our testimony here.
And now for something new and completely different, the NYS Assembly is holding a hearing on the Information Revolution and state government. The hearing is webcast live from Albany starting at 11am. The hearing notice raises numerous excellent questions. Congratulations to the Committee Chairs Englebright, Hevesi and Latimer. We hope this is the first among many hearings to examine how the state is harnessing the tremendous power and pace of the Information Revolution.
The hearing will:
“Examine how New York State’s agencies and municipalities are currently using advances in information technology and how such advances can be used to create jobs and serve the public more efficiently and more responsively.
New advances in information technology may make it possible to achieve significant increases in government efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and openness while providing better services and reducing regulatory burdens. “
Notice of Public Hearing: Information Revolution
1. WYNC touts the findings from the new joint report by the Brennan Center and the Campaign Finance Institute, Donor Diversity Through Public Matching Funds. A significantly greater number of small donors contributed to campaigns in New York City, which matches donations of less than $175 at a six-to-one ratio, than contributed to state-level elections, where no matching exists. The results also evidence greater participation by minorities and low-income individuals under New York City’s public matching fund system. The report notes the ongoing campaign to institute a similar system for New York State elections, suggesting that small donor public financing could increase the diversity of the donor base for state elections.
2. Super PACs are already dominating this federal election cycle, and an article from Crain’s New York Business suggests they may play a major role in New York City elections as well. “There will be super PACs,” said New York Republican State Committee Chairman Ed Cox. “It’s impossible not to have them. They’re a part of the process now.” Such organizations could put unlimited dollars behind policy issues or mayoral candidates, according to some sources. Nonetheless, heightened disclosure requirements and a vigilant city Campaign Finance Board, according to the Board’s former general counsel, Laurence Laufer, may mean that these organizations work within greater restraints in New York City than at the federal level.
3. After more than a decade of accusations of misusing public funds, the law has finally caught up with the former New York State Senator Pedro Espada. A federal jury convicted Espada of four counts of theft, and he now faces up to forty years in prison. The charges stemmed from Espada’s unlawful use of over $400,000 belonging to a health clinic he helped found in 1978. Espada became known statewide in 2009 after taking part in a coup against party leadership shortly after the Democrats gained a narrow majority in the Senate. Two other Senators involved in that political turmoil – Hiram Monserrate and Carl Kruger – recently pleaded guilty to separate corruption charges.
1. State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries reiterated his strong support for public campaign finance in an interview on MSNBC this week, urging fellow state lawmakers to pass the Fair Elections Act before the end of the legislative session. Jeffries noted that Gov. Cuomo’s backing will be crucial to the success of the Fair Elections Act: “We need his leadership on this issue, and I’m convinced if he decides to lead and move this forward, we can get meaningful campaign finance reform in New York State.”
2. A new report issued by the Center for Working Families examines how money in politics led taxpayers to foot the bill for the new Yankee Stadium. In 2006 Yankees ownership paid over $300,000 to a lobbying firm run by former Bronx Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez—the largest lobbying fee reported that year—as well as other influential lawmakers including former state senator Joseph Bruno, in an apparent effort to secure funding for the stadium. The report highlights the financing of Yankee Stadium as a case study in the high-stakes influence-peddling permitted by New York’s current campaign finance regime.
3. The Democrat and Chronicle strongly urged Gov. Cuomo to stand behind his promise to prioritize campaign finance reform, recalling a 2010 campaign publication in which Cuomo called on state legislators to “fundamentally alter our system to give voices to all New Yorkers” by creating a small-donor matching program for publicly funded campaigns. Bills that would create such a program have been introduced in the Assembly, but Cuomo’s support is widely seen as instrumental in moving campaign finance reform through the Senate