“Open Data” is Great, But it Doesn’t Mean “Open Information” or “Open Government”


It’s got a bomb-throwing headline —  “Why the open data movement is a joke” —  but a controversial blog post by Canadian Tom Slee makes many important points. His follow up post, on the  “Open data movement,” further refines his argument and is worth a read by anyone interested in using the internet to open up government and empower the citizenry.

Our group is part of a coalition of civic groups and technologists in the NYC Transparency Working Group, which successfully campaigned for the New York City open data law. There’s a lot to like in our new open data law, and it has the potential to do many things for many stakeholders, from tech start-ups to policy analysts to advocates to city bureaucracies. More broadly, it is a step towards changing public expectations about the nature of government digital information, and whether it belongs to the government or the public — or better yet, both.

However, the open data law is only one of many efforts to harness the information revolution for the public benefit, and there many misconceptions about what it will and will not do. This is where the debate that Tom Slee sparked comes in. The NYC open data law calls for posting regularly updated public data sets consisting of lists, charts and tables; not “narrative data,” not reports, not budget updates, not analysis, not contracts, and not the myriad of digital information that sheds light on what city government is actually doing. NYC’s law does not call for the disclosure of all digital information releasable under New York’s expansive Freedom of Information Law. Nor does it actually compel agencies — including the notoriously secretive NYPD — to disclose anything.

Again, the NYC open data law is strong work, and we are going to bust our tails to help make it work. Among other things, it is part of encouraging a change of heart and perspective within city government. But it, like other open data laws and initiatives, are a facet of open government, not open government.