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Secrets of open data success

As cities across the country open their data, the U.S. City Open Data Census is keeping tabs on municipal  efforts by  collecting information on the current state of access to a selected group of datasets. The crowdsourced project aims to be a benchmarking tool that communities can use to ignite conversations about open government data.

The Sunlight Foundation, which is helping with the initiative, reports that although many cities have made progress with open data portals and digitizing archives, a few consistently lead the pack. Some of those cities’ best practices were discussed in a June 24 blog post.

For example, the Data Las Vegas initiative “earns the city top marks for a wide range of the datasets checked by the census, from budget information to data on parcels and permits,” according to Sunlight. What’s more, the city’s data accessibility has clear, strong policies. In 2014, the blog states, the city included the words “convenient, modifiable and open formats” in the city’s code, and Las Vegas added additional open policies this year, assuring that data will be “placed into the public domain…[with] no restrictions or requirements placed on use.”

Austin, Texas, also ranks high because of its open data policy and practices. In fact, Open Data Census gives the city a nearly perfect record on accessibility. Its policy states that “[t]he City shall not assert any copyright, patent, trademark, or other restriction on government information,” according to the blog. Additionally, the policy requires officials to research new data technologies and seek feedback from the public.

Sunlight also lauded smaller cities for their open data efforts. Hartford, Conn., provides data on crime, construction permits and more without the resources of a large budget. A 2014 executive order from the mayor requires the city to have a “centralized ‘authoritative’ open data portal; demands ‘widely accepted, nonproprietary, platform-independent, machine-readable method[s] for formatting data’ and presses for ways to make Hartford’s data easy for private users to process automatically,” the blog states. The order also requires clear timelines for data publication and open data monitoring.

Asheville, N.C. -- less than a tenth the size of Austin, the blog notes -- also has a strong open data policy that requires machine-readable data formats, regular updates to datasets, a centralized data catalog and a guarantee of “free reuse” for any dataset.

All the cities have room to improve, however. For example, application programming interfaces could help Austin reinforce its policy, Sunlight said, and both Austin and Las Vegas should provide bulk data downloads and guidelines for citing city datasets.

Asheville’s policy does not include automated data processing and APIs, and Hartford “could learn from Asheville’s data licensing provision, which ensures that people can freely use city data,” the blog states. “Both could further strengthen their open data policies by requiring the cities to publish metadata, to make data available in bulk and to establish methods of prioritizing data releases.”

Ultimately, having a good policy is not the same as carrying it out, the foundation said, and cities should monitor to be sure the requirements are being executed.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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