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How Public Opinion Is Shaping Open Data in D.C.

The District is using public feedback to shape the terms and conditions of use for its data, as well as future open government efforts.

When the District of Columbia first issued terms and conditions of use for its data, transparency advocates and civic hackers made their complaints known.

Among the concerned parties was Josh Tauberer, founder of bill-tracking website GovTrack.us, who questioned if he would need a lawyer to hack in D.C. Tauberer highlighted vague and questionable terms, including one stating that website users would not encourage others to engaged in any conduct that would give rise to civil liability.

Going forward, district officials want to use public feedback to proactively shape open government plans and improve current efforts. A 15-member advisory group that launched in late October will play a key role in fostering public participation in the open government process and ensuring more data sets are released while protecting those that have sharing restrictions.

The group's first meeting is slated for Nov. 19 and will be broadcast online and available on-demand after. You can watch it live right here starting at 12 p.m. EST. The second meeting is set for Dec. 3. About a third of the first meeting will be dedicated to receiving public feedback. (Here's a recap)

“We have made substantial progress,” says Brian Flowers, general counsel to the mayor and chairman of the D.C. Open Government Advisory Group. “We removed all the restrictions except those that pertain to third-party copyrights and certain other copyright provisions that we have to determine really how it would impact the government.”

Tauberer has since praised D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer for immediately engaging with him. "To their credit, several OCTO staff members spent several hours talking through these issues with me on multiple occasions. They have really been putting in the effort to get this all right," he wrote on his blog.

Taking the Limits Off Open Data

The District has now opted to use a less restrictive Creative Commons license for its data, which allows users to “copy, modify, distribute, and perform the data, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission,” according to the terms and conditions document. Any data made available under the license cannot be rescinded, Flowers notes. The previous version, which was modified last month, included a clause that restricted certain portions of the site to registered users over the age of 18. That language has since been removed.

The government isn't trying to impede people's right to use the data as they see fit, Flowers explains. “The only issue is identifying what data sets could be problematic.” But “one thing we reasoned is we are going to be looking at the data before we release it. If there is an issue with the data and it is protected, we wouldn't post it.”

D.C. officials also want feedback on the mayor's open government and open data directive, which was released in July. “One of the main goals is to have the public inform the government on the status of open government and what they want to see,” he says.

Public input will be the basis for a report on improving open government in the District. Flowers plans to complete the report before Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser takes office in January.

Under the directive, government agencies were required to publish open data reports, detailing their efforts to promote openness and public participation and collaboration. Specifically, agencies had to explain their plans to enhance or expand opportunities for the public to participate in agency decision-making; to increase public access to information; and to improve collaboration with governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations and the private sector. (You can view the plans here.)

This is the first submission of the reports, Flowers notes. “They are probably a little bit modest,” which is why the advisory group and the public will be asked to review them and suggest improvements.

The new advisory group is still in its infancy and has not yet adopted bylaws governing its activities. “One of the discussions we have to have is what is our role, and what work are we expected to do,” says Robert Becker, attorney and board member of the D.C. Open Government Coalition. He is one of three nongovernment members in the new advisory group. “There is also the question of how the new administration will deal with this.”

Will Open Government Flourish Under New Leadership?

Becker is hopeful that the new mayor will continue the open government work underway, considering Bowser worked with the Open Government Coalition to introduce an open meetings bill. “We have worked with her before, and we know she is receptive,” Becker says.

But the fate of the advisory group and its membership is unknown.

Most of the members are from government and serve at the pleasure of the mayor, Flowers explains, adding that Bowser could reconstitute the group or abolish it. There's an urgency to receive public comment and finalize the open government report before those decisions can be made.

Dmytro Poliakh/thinkstock
Nov 06 2014

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