San Francisco passes municipal open data law

Yesterday, the San Francisco Board of Overseers voted unanimously to approve the first municipal an open data law* in the United States. November 9, 2010 is a milestone for open government.

That said, the moment comes with major caveats on open data appetite vs reality, as John Wonderlich points out at the Sunlight Foundation.

Here are the changes that came out of the committee, though:

AMENDED on Page 2, Lines 2-6 by adding ‘make reasonable efforts to’ after ‘shall’; deleting ‘all’ after ‘available’; adding ‘and with applicable law, including laws related to privacy’ after ‘(“COIT”)’; Page 3, Line 2 by deleting ‘all’ after ‘accounting of’; and on Page 3, Line 5 by replacing ‘would’ with ‘could’.
Those changes are comical. The ordinance now mandates that agencies have to try to follow the standards set by an IT oversight body, to release some information based on an audit of some subset of public data.

This is the language of the low-hanging fruit — the kind of aspirational mandate that isn’t really a mandate at all, but more of a statement of goals and principles, lofty rhetoric with a roadmap made up of other road maps, and plans for other plans.

Again, this declaration, and the others like it, aren’t inappropriate. Their effects probably vary based on the context, based on the actual commitment of everyone involved, from government officials to citizens.
If all these declarations do is to win some of the easy fights, then they’re well worth the effort, because those obvious decisions (like open local transit data) have been gotten wrong far too often in the past, and can have significant positive effects when they’re gotten right.
We need to avoid, however, thinking that these top-level political declarations are something they aren’t. Governments have a vast stores of information, and most of it won’t be reached by these pronouncements. There’s a whole world between the initial urge for government to “put all its data online” and the “please try to put some data online better when you remember to” that that urge decays into. At the first sign of trouble, “all” disappears, “must” becomes “should,” and a mandate becomes a suggestion. The San Francisco ordinance demonstrates just how far a vision for transparency can be from the kind of nuance and structure that makes it possible.

Wonderlich is onto something here. Read the whole thing.

*CORRECTION: As Philip Ashlock pointed out, “Portland’s open data & open source legislation passed a year ago in Oregon, though it wasn’t as explicit as San Francisco’s. See open data policy [at CivicCommons].” In his comment to FreeGovInfo’s story, he notes that Portland’s “law was largely influenced by the legislation passed in Vancouver about six months before that. The major difference (and a very important one) with San Francisco’s new legislation is that it is more explicit about using open licenses with the open data.”

I regret the error; the tweet from the White House @OpenGov account (“San Francisco passes first municipal open data law”) led me astray.

The text of the law is embedded below, courtesy of Chris Dorobek at Federal News Radio.

San Francisco open data law (11.09.2010)

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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