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.