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Alexander Howard

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The Empire State Strikes Back: New York Launches New Open Government Website

Posted: 06/04/2012 11:42 am

Last week, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched NYOpenGovernment.com, a new website that his office touts as a means for "voters, the media and government watchdogs to hold state government accountable" by providing the public online access to government data on campaign contributions, lobbying, and state contracts.

"Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence," Attorney General Schneiderman said, in a prepared statement. "New York Open Government will help the public keep an eye on what their government is doing in order to deter corruption and increase confidence in the public sector. This site is a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers demanding up-to-date and comprehensive information about their government."

The launch of the new site fulfills a commitment that Schneiderman made as a candidate for Attorney General. NYOpenGovernment.com is an expansion of Project Sunlight, which went online in 2007 under then NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The citizens of New York could use a boost to confidence about their state government. According to a release from the New York A.G.'s office, at least 20 current or former elected members of the legislative and executive branches of the New York State government were either accused or convicted of crimes per the last decade.

"It's hard not to be enthusiastic about this launch," said Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, when asked for comment. "NYOpenGovernment.com demonstrates a genuine commitment to public oversight that more states should seek to emulate. Without the online release of information about campaign contributions, lobbying, state contracts, and other "influence data", no government can really claim to be fulfilling its promise to be open or to provide open data."

The data on the new website is sourced directly from the relevant state agencies. Campaign finance data come from the Board of Elections, lobbyist data from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, state contract data from the Comptroller's office, state corporation data from the Department of State, and bill information from the legislature. According to the attorney general's office, the AG receives raw data, in different formats, from the agencies when they update their own respective websites.

"What's worth noting about New York's new platform is that it not only releases this important accountability data, it also provides contextualization for it, allowing citizens to access the info through centralized searches," said McCann. In fact, this is the primary approach behind sites like Ethics.gov, or Sunlight's InfluenceExplorer.com and one that we consider a best practice."

If media and citizens have requests for data or questions about quality or accuracy, the AG's office established a primary point of contact: Jason Ortiz, the director of special projects, and provided an official phone number (212-416-8743) and email address: Jason.Ortiz@ag.ny.gov.

The introduction of site was parsed by numerous members of New York's good government community:

"With New York Open Government, Attorney General Schneiderman is showing clear leadership in making to government more transparent and accountable," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, in a prepared statement. "By updating New York Open Government online tools and features A.G. Schneiderman is demonstrating that in the 21st century, the public's access to information regarding how their government officials act must be easily searchable and accessible online."

"We're excited by Attorney General Schneiderman's New York Open Government website," said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, in a prepared statement. "We applaud the attorney general's efforts to harness the immense power of the internet to increase government transparency and accountability. We look forward to working with A.G. Schneiderman to help New York Open Government achieve its full potential as a potent tool for restoring trust and confidence in our state government."

"New York Open Government is an important resource for New Yorkers who want to know how their government works," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY, in a prepared statement. "We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for helping to bring New York's information services into the 21st century, and significantly improving access to publicly available data. Government transparency is essential to an engaged electorate."

"In the information age, New Yorkers want and expect access to the hard data that shows what their government is up to," said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for NYPIRG. "Attorney General Schneiderman's New York Open Government website provides a 'one-stop shopping' place for average New Yorkers as well as sophisticated researchers to find information about elected officials and those seeking to influence them. The features will make it easier to access, organize and ultimately make sense of information as never before. This is an important resource for New Yorkers trying to keep tabs on government."

There's an additional bright spot here, with respect to cost to taxpayers: no expensive contract to a systems integrator was involved. The office of the Attorney General built the site in house, with no consultants. According to the NY attorney general's office, hat they're committed to sustaining and enhancing the site, including adding more datasets, improved search and a trackers for the most viewed data.

If, in the future, it may be possible for citizens to share information about government programs, practices or officials into the their social networks, it will a step ahead for networked accountability. "We've seen the power of social media for democracy movements around the world," said NY Attorney General Schneiderman, in a prepared statement. "By making this tool compatible with multiple media platforms, we hope to empower our own citizens to hold their government accountable."

The AG's office looks at the website like an example of "living, breathing and evolving public accountability," and emphasized that they will listen to its users and implement their suggestions "when it makes sense" to do so.

Here's one suggestion, from this native of upstate New York: set up a data.nyopengovernment.com so that citizens, media, developers, advocates and state employees can see, browse and download the data in bulk. Currently, a user can search for an individual and then view all the relevant records, as for Mario Cuomo, with the capacity to download the data as a .CSV, Excel file or XML.

While New York should and is being lauded for this step forward to make open government data available in open, structured form only, its public officers could help to enable an ecosystem of networked accountability through enabling the creation of web services, not just new websites. The next evolution in open government is not to encourage citizens to visit a website but to release the data that site is built upon so that it finds them, when they use search engines, social networks, media websites or civic applications like OpenStates.

 

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