Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From HB477 to an Open Data Standard for Utah

During the 2011 GRAMA work group, created in response to public outcry over HB477 and proposed changes to Utah's GRAMA law, I learned three things:

  • Utah has an amazing FOI law in GRAMA, defining public data.
  • An aggressive online infrastructure is already in place, but not being fully utilized in the availability of public data as defined by GRAMA.
  • Despite the image HB477 created, most of our lawmakers have high respect for transparency, being held accountable, and public access to information.

After we had made our recommendations as a work group -- almost all of which were enacted in Sen. Bramble's SB177 in 2012 -- I continued my conversations with state agencies, cities, counties, lawmakers, and transparency advocates here in Utah.  I had long conversations with the Sunlight Foundation (who, surprisingly, never stopped answering my constant questions) and open data leaders in other states regarding the implementation of public data policy.  The questions I had:

  • Are we getting the most out of our FOI laws?  
  • Is there waste, inconsistency, or even unnecessary cost for both the state and the public regarding the release of public data?
  • Could improvements be made easily?
  • Do the necessary tools exist already?

The answers were always: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The next step became obvious.  To borrow the words of the sponsor of the bill resulting from these many conversations, Sen. Deidre Henderson in a KNRS interview last Friday: In Utah "the wheel has already been invented, we just need to streamline the process."

In December, all of this talk became a reality when Sen. Henderson agreed to head the effort up.  A small brainstorming group came together quickly, including Sen. Henderson, former lawmaker (and troublemaker) Holly Richardson, myself, Laurenellen McCann by phone from the Sunlight Foundation, and two people who know more about IT and data processes than anyone I know, Jesse Harris, and Phil Windley.

A skeleton bill was drafted, and our group expanded to include representatives from state archives, records, the Chief Information Officer's office, and additional members of the original GRAMA work group.  I've been told Sen. Todd Weiler wants in, but he doesn't know the secret knock, so...  Kidding!  Sen. Henderson has made it known she wants the process behind possibly changing the process of how data gets to the public to be open, and has even asked for your feedback via her post at The Senate Site.

Personally, I'm hoping for a robust discussion and passage, followed by what will surely be a continued refining of the data policy, streamlined by this bill.

So why am I writing this?  Two reasons.  I want to start a conversation about the importance of an open data standard in ensuring we get the most -- both in efficiency and effectiveness -- out of an already impressive environment surrounding public data in Utah.  More on that coming soon.  I also wanted to highlight this entire process.  From HB477 two years ago, to the work group, to the openness and sincerity and excitement of Senate leadership, staff, and of course Sen. Henderson herself in making this come together has been amazing.

On KVNU's For the People I get calls all the time from Utahns who feel their government doesn't listen.  "They don't care what we think."  "They don't listen to the little guy."  "They're out of touch."  Maybe this is a fair criticism, sometimes.  But in Utah, it's also true and important to recognize that anyone -- even an unapologetic lefty activist/blogger/heckler, like me -- can still get the ear of lawmakers and be a part of the process armed with nothing more than their email address, phone numbers, and an idea.

That is very cool.

I'll write more about the usefulness of an open data standard in the coming days, but I wanted to tell this story first.  I think it's easy to take for granted, or even get caught up in our (admittedly fun, equally important) partisan differences or the very "western" innate (and somewhat healthy) mistrust of government.  But it's nice to have a reminder that here in Utah anyone willing to jump in, through lawmakers eager to engage, can be a part of the process.

Thanks to Sen. Niederhauser and Sen. Henderson for engaging.

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