NYC Open Data Bill passes City Council: Putting Govt’s Digital Wealth Online

Today, New York City took a very important step towards getting more government digital data online when the NYC City Council passed Council Member Gale Brewer’s NYC Open Data Bill, Intro 29-A. The new law creates a process for putting truly massive amounts of city data online. Reinvent Albany congratulates Council Member Brewer, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, council lawyer Jeff Baker, DOITT Commissioner Carole Post, and the Bloomberg administration for negotiating a workable way forward for making vast amounts of city data usable by the public. The mayor has pledged to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.

The Open Data Law is the product of untold hours of work by city council and mayoral staff, and involved extensive consultation with the civic and technology groups in the NYC Transparency Working Group, many of which actively supported the bill.

We have high hopes for the NYC Open Data Law, and would like to see a New York State Open Data Law. The new law is important for both symbolic and practical reasons. It articulates a clear public principal that digital data should be available to the public and online – not just in response to Freedom of Information Law requests. The law’s preamble says:

“It is in the best interest of New York City that its agencies and departments make their data available online using open standards. (This) will make the operation of city government more transparent, effective and accountable to the public…Streamline… communications within and between government, promote innovative strategies for social progress and create economic opportunities.”

For those concerned about implementation and actually getting new data, there is reason for optimism. The new law was developed jointly by staff to the mayor and council. They worked hard to create a realistic process grounded in public feedback. Both branches feel ownership, and have internal champions who want to see the Open Data Law work. Putting terabytes of government data online is a new and ambitious undertaking. It is a complex process and easily sabotaged by bureaucratic obstructionism. As advocates experienced with agency recalcitrance, we believe that a more proscriptive, or “stronger,” bill supported by council, but opposed by the mayor, would be symbolically satisfying but close to useless in practice. Our Exhibit A is the well intentioned, and quite visionary, Commission on Public Information and Communication. “COPIC” was created by City Council in 1989 – at the beginning of the internet age – and tasked with publishing an annual public data directory. Sadly, COPIC has amounted to nothing because mayors don’t like it. The Open Data Law was co-created by the mayor, and pushed by one of his agencies.

The Open Data Law does four things:

1. It empowers the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) to develop standards and oversee a step by step process for putting the city’s quantitative data* into a single web portal. (*The new law will not require government reports, the budget or ad hoc quantitative analysis be put online. For instance, the NYC Digital Road Map would not have to be put online under this bill — though it already is.)

2. It calls for an inventory of all data sets. (Already called for under the NYC COPIC law, but is not being complied with.)

3. Sets a timeline for agencies to put their quantitative data online at the NYC Open Data central data website. Within a year, agencies have to put all of the data they currently have online in this data site.

4. It creates an online feedback process that agencies are supposed to heed. This is the key to the law’s success or failure — advocates know this and are going to energetically pursue something that gives full voice to public concerns and interests. NYC transparency advocates will build on what Portland is doing, and make sure that the mayor and his agencies know exactly what data the public wants to see online, and in what form.


Welcome: The State Integrity Investigation

Sometimes we forget that Planet Albany isn’t alone in the universe.  There are other states plagued by corruption, undemocratic, secretive and unfair governance.  So we were glad to learn that  a coalition of major U.S. philanthropies have joined with national civil society groups together to launch a significant new, internet based, effort to take on corruption in state government.

The State Integrity Investigation “aims to inspire policy changes to promote good government practices. It will rank every state on its risk of corruption by gathering data on a checklist of over 300 risk indicators across fourteen categories of state government as they apply in each state. In early 2012, the Investigation will issue detailed report cards on every state with stories about what practices and processes are performing well in government, and what areas require improvements.” New York’s overall grade isn’t posted, but has been evaluated in fourteen different areas including government procurement and  public access to information. We haven’t had a chance to go through most of the ratings, but this site — and this initiative — is worth a look. Check it out.

NY’s Very Strong Governor System

Richard Brodsky, formally a powerful Assemblymember, and long-time inhabitant of Planet Albany, has a provocative essay in City and State comparing Governor Andrew Cuomo to  Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Brodsky’s piece includes the incisive paragraph below which lays out the massive potential power given to the governor by the state constitution.

Join me, for a moment, in the complex details of how this state is governed. Gov. George Pataki discovered and used a provision of the state constitution that has elements of authoritarian regimes. It permits governors to add language on any subject to budget proposals, and bars the Legislature from changing it. For an extreme example, a governor could put language into his budget to repeal all state traffic laws. The Legislature is powerless to remove it and powerless to amend it. That’s not the textbook explanation of how laws are made; we’re taught that the executive proposes and the Legislature disposes. But not in New York. It is also the key reason why budgets have been late for the last 25 years—the Legislature delays the budget vote rather than confront the limits of its power. This year that imbalance is at work as three key issues are included in Cuomo’s budget—privatizing the pension system, consolidating state agencies and changing teacher evaluations.

MTA Borrowing Sheds Light On Albany’s “Bond Issuance Fee” Rip-Off

Along with being a planet and a state of mind, Albany is the capital of fiscal shell games, back-door borrowing, and cost-shifting rip-offs. These scams are used to mask the fact that the state spends more money than it makes. The state does this by finding numerous ways to borrow to pay for current operations. Or, in the case of the state’s “bond issuance fee,” by taking a slice of public authority borrowing to pay for state operations. Normally, this fee doesn’t draw much attention, but the high-profile MTA is especially crunched for cash. And today, the state’s absurd and irresponsible “bond issuance fee” is in the spotlight.

The Daily News reports that since 2006, the MTA has paid the state $105 million in surcharges on money it borrowed through bond sales. But the cost to the MTA of this fee – and the transit riders and tax payers who pay for it – is far higher, given the $6.5 million in annual interest payments on the 30 year MTA bonds from which the fee was paid. The MTA will soon be borrowing billions more for its 2012-2014 capital plan, and faces new state borrowing fees of $75 million. The News reports the MTA is asking the state Division of the Budget (essentially the Governor’s Office) for a waiver of the borrowing fee. We hope the MTA gets its waiver. But the bigger issues is why is there an ill conceived borrowing fee imposed on state authorities in the first place?

The State Public Authorities Law (Art. 9, Title 10, Section 2976)  imposes a fee on all bonds issued by state public authorities, which include big ones like the MTA and Dormitory Authority, and dozens of local Industrial Development Authorities. This 2002 law was created to generate additional cash for the General Fund, and it appears to give the Director of the Division of the Budget (one of the governor’s top cabinet members) total discretion to waive the fee – there are no criteria spelled out in the law. Granted, it makes sense for the MTA and state agencies to borrow money through bonding to spread out the costs of infrastructure that provides benefits across decades. But borrowing to pay current bills is stupid, unfair and expensive. A 30 year bond costs roughly twice the amount borrowed. And current operations benefit current tax payers, not future ones. The bond issuance fee is another Albany fiscal scam, and it should be eliminated.

(PS We did a quick scan of the budget and didn’t see the total amount of bond issuance fee revenue being projected for 2012/2013. Email us at with a page and link if you have it.)

Public Authorities Law Sec. 2976