Could a new state website for open-data be coming? One Utah advisory board is pushing for it to happen. The website could eliminate the need for lengthy, time-consuming, and expensive Government Records Access Management (GRAMA) requests from citizens and the press trying to access public documents.
Last month, the Utah Transparency Advisory Board (TAB) published a report recommending the implementation of an open government website to allow open access to public data. This comes following a lengthy investigation which commenced in March, following the passage of Senate Bill 283, sponsored by Sen. Deidre Henderson (Republican – Spanish Fork), which required TAB to study the establishment of an information website to provide access to public data and then make a recommendation to the legislature regarding its implementation.
“Providing open government data offers many potential benefits to the State, including generating new government efficiencies, providing a higher degree of public accountability, and stimulating economic growth,” TAB stated in its report. TAB believes that, among other things, the website should prominently feature capabilities that include financial transparency, open access to public data repositories, and a single point of access for GRAMA requests and access to open records.
The report also calls for the linking of other repositories of public information, including maps, photograph collections, laws, and regulations that currently exist on state agency websites. “Open data and records should be based on a no-wrong door approach to government and has the potential to enhance access to other existing websites. The public should not have to be experts on government to find the information and data they are seeking,” says TAB.
Back in January, Utah GRAMA Working Group member Jason Williams told UPC that, “Oftentimes, half of what these state agencies spend their time locating [after a GRAMA request is submitted] doesn’t even need to come from a GRAMA request, people just don’t know where to locate the information. We’ve got this great open records law in Utah, but we’re just not taking advantage of it or utilizing it in the way it could be used.”
In creating a new way of accessing government datasets, TAB believes that the state should follow best practices in promoting open access. Some of those best practices would include the ability to filter data based on user-defined criteria, exporting data to a variety of useful formats such as iCal, xis, csv, pdf, etc., and embedding defined data sets in other websites while accessing the source data.
TAB believes that this policy recognizes not only the value of data to promote efficiencies on government, but also the possibility that it can be used as a tool by innovators to create new and dynamic products and services.
A modern open data portal, according to TAB, would provide major enhancements to the public in the way they are able to access and use data. It would provide multiple download options in convenient formats, create rich, visual context with maps and charts, introduce APIs (application programming interface) for real-time data access to selected data sets, help identify opportunities for data re-use in the mobile app market, and stimulate greater citizen participation.
TAB recommends that data should be made available in an uncompressed format when possible. Non-proprietary, open formats should also be used instead of proprietary data formats, which are more likely to require specialized and costly software. “Open data should use the most open format that will reasonably provide the necessary structure. Use of open formats will potentially expand access and reduce costs for data users,” TAB said.
Other benefits to open data access exist as well. Once in place, digitized and accessible public data in open formatting has the potential to dramatically reduce Freedom of Information requests that are presently handled manually by agencies, cities, and counties.
Although many elements needed to create a new open data website already exist, TAB notes that the state should add some new resources to maximize the benefits of open data, including the creation of the position of Central Data Coordinator in the state’s eGovernment office. The Central Data Coordinator would coordinate the implementation of data standards approved by the board, identify gaps in data and information available on the portal, provide recommendations for new standards and related data technologies as they evolve, and coordinate and train state agencies in the use of data management tools. The state would also have to purchase software that supports the delivery of open data to multiple formats.
The estimated cost of a statewide data coordinator, software, and storage is $250,000 a year. In addition, the State Archives would require an additional $250,000 for basic upkeep of the website, including increased server and storage capacity as well as ongoing programming and maintenance support.
“It is important that the state continue to invest in new advancements, including open data. The state has the opportunity to take some of the most useful experiences from other states and the federal government and provide one of the best Open Government sites in the nation. With the right tools in place, Utah can become even more effective and efficient, while opening up additional economic and business development opportunities,” TAB said.