Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
"You always hear that information is power, and in this case it really is."
New York City Council member Gale Brewer has been trying to open up the city’s inner workings to the public since the time when an IBM Selectric passed for a sophisticated information technology device.
“I’ve been into government transparency for so long that in the typing days I used to type up lists of government contacts and give them out to people,” says Brewer.
Since that primitive era, the amount of data generated by the city and its potential usability has increased exponentially. Its availability to the public, however, did not always keep pace.
That’s why Brewer and her allies in city government pushed for the passage last year of landmark open-data legislation that is designed to take all the information in the hands of city government and making it available to the public. This week is the one-year anniversary of the bill’s passage, and marks one of the bill’s first deadlines. At this point, all of the data that has already been publicly available must be delivered in accessible, machine-readable formats for publication online through a single web portal in an easily usable format, “without any registration requirement, license requirement or restrictions on their use….”. By September of this year, all 80 of the city’s agencies have to provide a compliance plan for meeting the legislation’s ultimate benchmark, which is to have all city databases up and ready for the public to access by 2018.
While some have criticized the law for not requiring the city to move quickly enough, it is to date the most comprehensive open data legislation in the country, and is viewed by many in the tech community as setting a national standard for municipal data legislation.
So why should the average person care?
Brewer admits that it’s hard to arouse passion among her constituents and fellow government officials about the legislation. “When you say open data, people roll their eyes,” she says. “But if you talk about government being open to people, that helps.”
The folks in the audience Brewer recently addressed at a Social Media Week event in New York already get it. They’re the ones building new-media businesses that are predicated on the free flow of electronic information – like Crowdcentric, the New York-based firm that runs Social Media Week, a global conference now in its fifth year.
The city is eagerly promoting its tech industry, most recently through a shiny new ad campaign called “Made in NY” and having a cutting-edge data policy will certainly help to attract and retain companies like the 900 listed on the “Made in NY” website. But until a relatively short time ago, the city's digital literacy level was not so great.
Brewer told the assembled techies a war story about trying to make digital progress in New York just a few short years back. “I remember the commissioner of parks, I’m not kidding you, coming to a hearing,” she said. “I was talking as chair of the technology committee, I asked him what they were doing in the parks. I mentioned 'hot spot,' and his face turned bright red. He thought it was something else.” The story got a big laugh.
But Brewer doesn’t just want to preach to members of tech-savvy choir, looking to develop the next hot app. She would like to see creative projects aimed at defining and illuminating public-policy questions – overlays of data about gang activity and the availability of youth programs, for instance, or deep analysis of stop and frisk numbers or traffic crashes. School performance, noise problems, affordable housing, homelessness – all the age-old urban problems can be examined in new ways as the information comes online and people make use of it.
“The really good news is all of the good government groups, like NYPIRG and the Citizens’ Union, are hooking up with tech people,” says Brewer. “It’s an interesting collaboration, a wonderful coming-together.”
Brewer says that the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative, under the leadership of then-U.S. deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck, served as an inspiration for New York’s law. But she noted a key difference. “It’s the first legislative open data effort,” she says. “It’s good to have it done legislatively, because an executive order is only as good as that administration.”
She envisions a future in which the open-data model spreads across the country and changes the way government works at a fundamental level. “Civic associations can take data and make better decisions locally,” she says. “If we get the data out there, that will help local planning.” But Brewer acknowledges that work will have to be done to make the data useful to groups like community boards, who might not have any idea what an API is. “We need some training for local people to be able to use this,” she says.
And, as she told the Social Media Week audience, there’s a real reason to get that training done: “You always hear that information is power, and in this case it really is.”