Philip Ashlock’s Testimony

Good morning Chairperson Garodnick and thank you for having me here to testify before your committee today.

My name is Philip Ashlock and I am the Open Government Program Manager for OpenPlans, a non-profit civic technology organization here in New York City. Much of the work that I do at OpenPlans directly relates to this bill in that I work with cities to establish open standards and best practices for municipal technology.

Intro 29 is a very important piece of legislation which I believe can have a profoundly positive effect on the city. However, rather than starting off by going into depth about what is good about Intro 29, I’d like to provide some context in which to place this bill relative to precedents in NYC Government and the current state of open data and open government practices internationally.

Section 1062 of the New York City Charter requires the New York city commission on Public Information and Communication to publish a “Public Data Directory” describing the computerized databases maintained by City agencies. This is the first “Public Data Directory” published pursuant to that requirement.

Publication of this first edition represents an important step towards fulfilling the goal of improving public access to information about the wide variety of computerized data maintained by the city. Information maintained by City agencies is increasingly being stored in computers. Until now, however, there has been no source of information available to researchers, community groups, businesses, and other members of the public regarding the types of electronic data kept by City agencies, much of which is required by law to be accessible to the public.

The New York City commission on Public Information and Communication is a new City agency, established by the 1989 amendments to the New York City Charter. The Commission is chaired by the President of the City Council, and includes public members as well as representatives of the Mayor, the City Council and a number of city agencies. In addition to publication of the Public Data Directory, the Commission’s responsibilities include education and outreach to assist the public in obtaining access to City information, and developing strategies for the use of new communications technologies to improve access to and distribution of city data. In June 1991, the Commission presented the City Council with a comprehensive proposal for cablecasting the proceedings of the Council and the City Planning Commission.

This Public Data Directory represents the joint efforts of the members of the Commission and, in particular, the staff of the Mayor’s Office of Operations and the Law Department. The Commission also wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance provided by the agencies themselves in preparing the Directory.

For each agency, the Directory provides a brief description of the agency’s mission, the name and phone number of a, “Public Liaison” available to assist members of the public, and brief descriptions of the contents of the databases. The “Users Notes” contain important information on methods of access, legal restrictions on access to certain records, and other information.

We hope that the Directory will assist you in locating sources of information and in formulating records requests to City agencies. At present, only a few agencies offer members of the public “on-line” access to electronic data. For that reason, in most instances it will be necessary for you to make a Freedom of Information Law request to the agency in order to obtain the records you need. The Commission believes that significant opportunities exist to expand “on-line” access to City data and intends to work to encourage City agencies towards this goal.

Publication of this Directory is a first for New York City government. Our goal has been to produce a Directory that is “user friendly” for all members of the public, including both those who are knowledgeable about computer data and those who are not. In future editions, we hope to expand the listings, add to the database descriptions, and provide more information regarding computer formats. We welcome your comments on ways to improve future editions and methods of access to City agency electronic data.

That was the introduction to New York City’s first public data directory published April 1993.

Let me reference another document, dated April 30th 1993, signaling the initial release of another data directory. This is CERN’s public domain declaration of the world wide web, it’s essentially the web’s birth certificate.

http://tenyears-www.web.cern.ch/tenyears-www/Declaration/Page1.html

I draw these parallels for historical context, both were released in April 1993. New York City has the earliest and most comprehensive open data policy of any city or government I’m aware of and it’s written right into the city charter, but since this policy predated the birth and current ubiquity of the web it has largely fallen into obscurity and seems to have been treated as nearly irrelevant.

Intro 29 seems to provide a crucial update and breathe life into the original intent and current relevance of COPIC and the Public Data Directory.

For some additional context, Intro 29 now finds itself within an international movement for open data and open government which is in part inspired by President Obama’s Open Government Directive. In the past year we’ve seen new policies to put government data online from Vancouver, B.C., Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, the City of Ottawa, The United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. At least as many more governments have instated new open data initiatives and data catalogs without official policies. You likely know of two other similar pieces of legislation under review coming from right here in New York State.  State Assembly bill A10335 calls to publish a technical standards manual for the publishing of records on the Internet by state agencies. On the federal level Representative Steve Israel has introduced H.R.4858, The Public Online Information Act, which calls for Executive Branch agencies to publish all publicly available information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats. This movement represents a long awaited coming of age for our system of governance regarding how we disseminate information and interact with one another. Releasing information online in standard formats also presents huge opportunities for government efficiencies and private sector entrepreneurship (as with the successful industries enabled by GPS, weather, or Census data), but most importantly open data furthers citizen insight, creativity, and civic engagement as we’ve seen with wonderful new websites like Big Apple Ed (bigappleed.com).

Intro 29 is groundbreaking because it is so comprehensive and so explicit about the needs for all public data to be online.  However, I do wish this policy had an opportunity to speak more to the value proposition of what it suggests and try to really change the culture of information management as has been done with similar legislation in many other cities. The requirement for data in legacy systems to be made available online might mean modernizing infrastructure, but this should almost always mean new efficiencies and cost savings rather than new expenses. Precedents of cost savings for this transition are easy to come by from Andrew Hoppin at the New York State Senate and from Vivek Kundra at the White House. Furthermore, open standards and access via the internet are the best possible benchmarks for the increased efficiency, robustness, and sustianability of New York City’s infrastructure, information systems, and government as a whole.  As a simple example of this benchmark, do you ever email yourself a file or a piece of information because the standard process of email is so much more reliable and ubiquitous than all the other incompatible systems you might encounter?

The hope is that precedents like Intro 29 can provide an opportunity for NYC to truly establish itself as leader for the future of city-centric information ecosystems and economies and as a city that knows how to provide a robust and sustainable foundation for civic engagement.

With that, I would like to touch on a few specific observations within the language of the legislation. I should preface this by saying that I think Intro 29 would be a huge success if passed as is and these points are just me trying to make it better.

In Section 23-301, Definitions, the term “Voluntary consensus standards” is used to refer to what I have more commonly heard described as “open standards.” I would suggest changing this terminology and possibly pairing it with the standard definition of an “open standard” provided by Bruce Perens. This definition is cited in similar legislation from the State of Vermont and it is generally regarded as the defacto definition. If we’re talking about standards, we might as well use the standard definition for a standard.

In Section 23-302, I would stress that the first sentence of point “b.” not be interpreted to suggest that the department should provide the interface to make each data set viewable by a web browser, but simply that the data is formatted in such a way that it is possible to have it viewable in a web browser. The fact that the data is in its raw primary form and is formatted using an open standard is the most important requirement.

In Section 23-304, there is a requirement for “an accounting of all public data sets under the control of the agency.” This is already a requirement in the City Charter with the Public Data Directory, so it might be worth noting that this accounting could be coupled with the Public Data Directory. By the time full compliance is met in 2013, this legislation should make the Public Data Directory obsolete, but until that time I think it is important that the Public Data Directory is maintained to highlight the datasets that exist, but are not available online.

In general, I would also suggest more opportunities for feedback and ways for the city to learn how to improve the process of releasing information. However, it appears as if this type of process is already meant to be overseen by COPIC.  With this in mind, it may worth considering how COPIC might provide oversight for compliance and overall implementation of Intro 29.

Information about the NYC Public Data Directory and COPIC was very difficult to find as have been many things regarding the practices and policies for making NYC data available. With this in mind and in the spirit of dataSF.org, dataTO.org, and dataOTT.org, a new website, dataNYC.org, has been established to provide information and collect feedback about the Public Data Directory and all data that New Yorkers might be interested in. The website includes the closest thing to a comprehensive Public Data Directory: a digitized version of DoITT’s 2001 Data Systems Inventory. This website was just put together and is expected to rapidly evolve to support the fulfillment of City run plans like Intro 29 as well as community run initiatives.

Thank you again for your time.

Philip Ashlock

Comments are closed.