Open New York’s Digital Information

New York State should put all non-personal digital information online in formats that are easy to search, use and download. For the first time, we New Yorkers have the technology to do this, and we should. Opening up the state’s treasure trove of digital information will spur innovation and job growth, help deliver better and more efficient government services, and save tax dollars so they can be spent where they are really needed. Though it’s often forgotten, the law and philosophy of New York State is that non-personal government information belongs to the people, not the government.

The legislative declaration to New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) says:

A free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government. The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.

It’s not just “good government” — government digital information is an inexhaustible form of public wealth that should be used to promote innovation and spur the creation of jobs, economic development, and knowledge. We are in the Information Age, and government is sitting on a mountain of information that New Yorkers can make our state a better place.

Opening up state data will also help state workers do their jobs better. Currently, state digital data is hoarded by the agencies that collect it, and can be difficult for other agencies to access. At a 2010 forum on government Information Technology, a number of state workers said they had to FOIL other state agencies for information they used in the course of their everyday work. Others had to FOIL their own agency.

What about privacy? Great question. Reinvent Albany is a huge advocate of increasing privacy protections. We think it’s wrong that NY State sells to private businesses the personal information of doctors and other licensed professionals. Fortunately, top experts in and out of state government believe that about 80% of state data is publicly disclosable and would not violate personal or law enforcement privacy. Better yet, New York’s law experience with FOIL means we already know what state data can be put online.