MNCOGI letter in support of, and recommendations for, Minneapolis open data policy

Posted by: on Aug 4, 2014 | No Comments

On July 14th, MNCOGI sent the following letter to Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson concerning the then draft Open Data Policy. This letter served as both a show of support for the issue of open data in Minneapolis, and a set of recommended changes to the draft policy in order to better align the Open Data Policy with the Minnesota Data Practices Act and federal data laws.

On July 30th, the Minneapolis City Council adopted an amended version of this Open Data Policy.

The following letter is also available for download as a PDF.

Gary Hill
Board Chair
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information

July 14th, 2014

Council Member Andrew Johnson
350 South 5th Street
Room 307
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Dear Council Member Johnson,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a non-profit organization dedicated to government transparency and public access to information. Our members support the aims and intentions of the city’s proposed “Open Data” policy, and we wish Minneapolis success in moving ahead with its initiative.

Bill Bushey (a MNCOGI board member who has been closely involved in discussions regarding the proposed policy) has shared a draft with our members for the purposes of gathering feedback. MNCOGI has evaluated the draft, and offers the following general comments:

1. Overall, we would urge that the draft language be modified in certain places to more closely align with terminology used in Chapter 13 of the Minnesota Statutes. This should be done in order to avoid any interpretive issues related to the implementation of the Open Data Policy within the general framework of the Data Practices Act.

For instance, the language within the “Department Responsibilities” section that describes “private” data should be modified to conform to the terminology of Chapter 13. Instead of labeling such data as simply “private,” it should be labeled as either “not public” data, or alternately, “private data on individuals, nonpublic data, or protected nonpublic data.” Please also note that “administrative cost concerns” are not permissible reasons to make data “not public” under Chapter 13.

2. We would also urge that the Open Data Policy clearly articulate the role of the Data Practices Responsible Authority (RA) within the work-flow structure of the Open Data initiative, due to the RA’s key role in administering data access under Chapter 13. In MNCOGI’s opinion, all city personnel responsible for implementing the Open Data Policy should be under the purview of the RA.

3. Finally, we would urge the city to evaluate potential liability issues related to unintentional disclosures of data classified as “not public” under state or federal law. This would be a “best practices” step that would be worth undertaking, given the potential scale of the data releases that the city would be making. Data policies like this one are cutting-edge projects, and MNCOGI wishes to see them crafted in concert with all applicable statutory requirements, so that they may become models for similar, future activities.

Please feel free to contact us with any additional follow-up questions. We appreciate your efforts to move the concept of government transparency into this new and innovative era.


/s/ Gary Hill
Gary Hill
Board Chair, MNCOGI

MNCOGI opposes health care industry exemption in “Helmberger” data practices bill

Posted by: on May 13, 2014 | No Comments

In 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Helmberger v. Johnson Controls case, which limited the application of the Data Practices Act (DPA) to private entities performing outsourced government work under contract. In its decision, the court held that private vendors whose contracts did not contain express “notice” language were exempt from the provisions the DPA. The decision reversed the previous, long-lived understanding that all Minnesota government contractors were, in fact, covered by that law.

“Helmberger” bill introduced

At the start of the current legislative session, the Minnesota Newspaper Association brought forward a bill that would remedy the Helmberger decision by specifying that all contractors performing government functions would be covered by the DPA – whether or not their contracts contained a specific notice requirement.

The bill clarifies section 13.05, Subd. 11 of the DPA, which provides the public with a valuable tool to oversee the outsourcing of government work to private entities. By providing public access to contractor data, this section of the DPA ensures that there is transparency in how tax dollars are spent, and how government functions are performed.

The “Helmberger” bill is important to government transparency, and MNCOGI board members have testified in favor of it at several legislative committee hearings. Most recently, at a joint Civil Law- HHS hearing, MNCOGI testified that the important oversight purpose of the bill should not be obscured by the addition of amendments, so that legislators could vote solely on the bill’s underlying premise.

Senate adds amendment to exempt health care industry

While in the Senate, the “Helmberger” bill had several sections added, including a section that granted a one-year exemption from the full reach of the DPA to health plans who contract for government work, as well as related providers and vendors.

MNCOGI opposes industry-wide exemptions from DPA

While this section “sunsets” after one year, MNCOGI believes that specific industries should not be granted preferential treatment in how the DPA applies to them – even for a short period of time.  Additionally, MNCOGI is concerned that once an exemption has been established in law, there may be a tendency to convert what was once a temporary statutory provision into a permanent feature of the DPA.

The House of Representatives is now set to vote on the House version of the bill on May 15. As of this writing, several amendments have been offered to the initial bill, including amendments that mirror the final Senate version (complete with its amended language).

MNCOGI is continuing to urge legislators to oppose the addition of broad, industry-wide exemptions to the bill, so that its oversight purpose does not become diluted.

Open data and comedy: They can go together

Posted by: on Apr 17, 2014 | No Comments

MNCOGI board member Bill Bushey (center) shares the stage with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (left) and Minneapolis Chief Information Officer Otto Doll (right)


Open Twin Cities co-founder and MNCOGI board member Bill Bushey braved the stage at Bryant Lake Bowl on Monday to sing the praises of open data, along with the Minnesota Secretary of State and Minneapolis’s chief information officer. It was all part of the Theater of Public Policy, an improv group that combines comedy with free-wheeling discussions of serious stuff. The house was packed to hear about the availability of large data sets, privacy breaches and other typically dry matter made more fluid by the wide beer selection and live music. Also spotted in the audience: MNCOGI board member Helen Burke.

MNCOGI: Minnesota should create legislative commission on data practices

Posted by: on Apr 8, 2014 | No Comments

The Star Tribune recently ran an editorial penned by MNCOGI chair Gary Hill regarding the group’s support for a legislative commission on data practices and data privacy.

The commission idea was initially brought forward by Representative Mary Liz Holberg, a Lakeville Republican who has long been considered the legislature’s resident expert on data issues.  Senate support for the idea started with DFL Senator Scott Dibble of Minneapolis.

Holberg’s hope for the commission is to allow the legislature a better, more deliberative forum for the discussion of complex data policy matters, outside of the time crunch of the regular legislative session.

MNCOGI has testified on behalf of the House and Senate versions of the bill before several committees, and the respective bills are now awaiting action on the floor of the legislature.

MNCOGI recognizes three outstanding FOI advocates

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2014 | No Comments

Upon receiving the 2014 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, Timberjay Newspapers publisher Marshall Helmberger said he’s gratified to know “Minnesotans still appreciate German-Norwegian stubbornness.”

Helmberger accepted the award Friday, March 14 at the annual Minnesota Coalition on Government Information FOI Day event in Minneapolis. Two pioneers for government transparency, Rodgers Adams and Robert Shaw, also received lifetime achievement awards.

MNCOGI honored Helmberger for his nearly three-year legal fight to uncover construction cost irregularities by the St. Louis County school district. The district and its contractor refused to disclose figures for a taxpayer-funded school construction project. Timberjay vs. Johnson Controls reached the Minnesota Supreme Court and prompted a legislative push to clarify how such contracts are structured.

“This fight is not over,” Helmberger said after receiving the award. He also praised First Amendment attorney  Mark Anfinson for his pro bono work on the case that Helmberger credited for “leveling the playing field” for a small newspaper going up against a Fortune 500 company with a well-financed team of lawyers.

MNCOGI also recognized two contemporaries of John Finnegan for their work with the late St. Paul Pioneer Press publisher to enact the law establishing the presumption of openness for government documents in Minnesota.

Robert Shaw, former executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, and Rodgers Adams, a former assistant editor at the Star Tribune were presented with lifetime achievement awards at the event.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson gave the keynote address at the ceremony. He quoted Mark Twain, folk singer John Prine and Star Tribune reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger to both praise and excoriate members of the press.

“I don’t love the press,” Anderson said. “I treasure your role and I respect you.”

Anderson is recognized as a proponent of government transparency, but spoke of instances where inaccurate news reports put him in uncomfortable positions, including questioning by the FBI.

MNCOGI 2014 legislative issues

Posted by: on Mar 3, 2014 | No Comments

On February 28th, MNCOGI released its 2014 legislative issues document during a noon-time event at the Minnesota State Capitol.

During the 2014 session, MNCOGI will be closely following several matters, including the status of license plate reader (LPR) data, provisions surrounding booking photo data, and the creation of a legislative commission on data practices.

MNCOGI’s full list of issues is reproduced below:

Data Practices Legislative Commission

• MNCOGI position:  Given the importance and complexity of data-related issues, the Minnesota Legislature should create a Legislative Commission on Data Practices.  A commission would allow the Legislature more time to study data issues (both access and privacy issues), bring recommendations, and craft bills that could be acted upon during the regular session.  The additional time afforded by the commission would allow the Legislature to take a “long view” of such matters, and aim for continuity in data policy.

LPR (License Plate Recognition) Data

• MNCOGI position:  To ensure effective oversight, provisions should be included within state law to ensure public access to data about the scope, nature, and use of LPR technology by Minnesota government entities.  MNCOGI also believes that a reasonable formula for dealing with data collected by LPR scanners is as follows:

All data collected by LPR scanners should be classified as “not public” data for a very short period of time after collection.  A retention scheme should be instituted under which “non-hit” LPR data would be quickly purged during its brief, initial status as “not public” data.  The remaining “hit” data that pertains to specific individuals or vehicles should be maintained as “not public” criminal investigative data until the closure of a criminal investigation.

Private contract, sub-contract data

• MNCOGI position:  In light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Helmberger v. Johnson Controls case, the Minnesota Legislature should support changes to Minnesota law that would ensure that data about privatized government functions continues to be available for public review.

Booking photograph data

• MNCOGI position:  Minnesota law should not be altered to treat requesters of booking photographs differently from other public data requesters.  Two bills introduced during the 2014 session seek to institute certain requirements related to booking photographs.  One of the bills (HF 1940) mandates that requesters submit statements regarding their intended uses of the photographs, as well as the locations where the photographs will be published.  The addition of such requirements would weaken the overall framework of the MGDPA by introducing – for the first time – mandates requiring certain requesters to specify their intended uses of government data.

HF 1940 also seeks to institute a variety of penalties for failing to comply with some of its provisions. For instance, the bill requires that persons who receive booking photographs from other parties file use-related disclosures with police agencies, or else become liable for damages. Such an approach raises significant First Amendment issues.

Prosecutors specified in “Criminal Investigative Data”

• MNCOGI position:  Prosecutors should be added to the itemized list of persons and/or entities that can receive and maintain “criminal investigative data” under Minn. Stat. 13.82.  Such a change would codify a long-standing practice recognized by IPAD advisory opinions.

Affirmative right to record open meetings

• MNCOGI position:  Minnesota law should be altered in order to codify an affirmative right to record any proceedings that are subject to Minnesota’s Open Meeting law.  Such a change would codify a long-standing Attorney General opinion on the subject,

Police “body cam” data

• MNCOGI position:  Several municipal police departments have either obtained – or are in the process of obtaining – “body cam” video recorders for patrol officers to wear.  These mobile devices record daily police interactions in order to create a record for use in criminal or civil court proceedings.  MNCOGI believes that the data created by police body cams should be classified as public “incident” data, similar to the way in which squad car video is considered to be presumptively public government data.  In both cases, the public classification of the data ensures a measure of public review of police activities.

Mass surveillance data

• MNCOGI position:  Given recent advances in technology, government entities may increasingly be able to engage in the mass collection of data about individuals that was formerly beyond the reach of large-scale capture.  Such data could include, for instance, ongoing, “real-time” information about the locations and movements of thousands of individuals.  The legislature should evaluate such technologies on an ongoing basis, and ensure statutory access to information about the nature, scale, and legal underpinnings of such technologies.


City finally hands over records of investigation

Posted by: on Feb 10, 2014 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

I blogged last month about how the Star Tribune had waited seven months for the city of Minneapolis to hand over records of an internal investigation into a public official. The documents finally arrived last week, and staff writer Eric Roper had a story about it in Sunday’s paper.  He also offered readers the entire investigative file, so you can piece together your own story, in between eight months’ worth of redactions.

MNCOGI-SPJ response to School District 833 data practices proposal

Posted by: on Feb 4, 2014 | No Comments

On February 3, 2014, MNCOGI and the Minnesota chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists sent a letter to several members of the Minnesota Legislature in response to a legislative priority set out by the School Board for District 833. At its January 9, 2014 meeting, the School Board listed its priorities for the coming legislative session, including making modifications to the Data Practices Act that would permit requests to be answered only if they were of “general interest to the public.”

As noted in the joint MNCOGI-SPJ letter, the district’s proposed standard would – if adopted – weaken the long-standing presumption of broad public access to Minnesota government data.  It would also permit government entities to “play favorites” with data requesters, effectively allowing them to pick and choose between who they wished to respond to. To quote from the letter,

“The proposed criteria of “general public interest” is exceedingly vague.  Some government entities might favor one requestor over another on the basis of mere political considerations, or turn aside “uncomfortable” requests that sought data related to government mismanagement, waste, fraud, or other unflattering conduct.”

Minutes from the School Board’s January 9th meeting are here. MNCOGI’s letter is available for review here.

Encouraging words about open data from Minneapolis

Posted by: on Feb 3, 2014 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

Last month, Minneapolis’s Chief Information Officer, Otto Doll, convened a meeting with open data advocates to talk about how to get more city data into the public’s hands. I’m encouraged to see these kinds of overtures from public officials, and it’s clearly a response to the movement of civic-minded hackers who are changing the whole conversation about public records. Doll started the meeting by acknowledged that despite its progressive image, Minneapolis is way behind most major cities in providing regular access to electronic records. My Strib colleague Eric Roper covered the meeting as part of his Sunday story about the open data movement. Roper’s story noted that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will host a “Capitol Code Open Data Jam” Feb. 22. The office describes it as an event “for citizens to use accessible public datasets to create new technology solutions that can stimulate business ideas — such as smartphone applications or websites.”

Too many public officials are reluctant to release data because they worry the public will misuse or misinterpret it. It’s refreshing to see officials offering access to data as a way to improve government’s performance and make society better. Let’s make them follow through on it.

Rejection by redaction: Seven months and waiting

Posted by: on Jan 9, 2014 | No Comments

From James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

When public officials take forever to fulfill records requests, one of the most common excuses is that they need to redact information that’s not public. Under Minnesota law, they can’t charge for the time spent redacting, but the process can result in long delays in handing over records that are undeniably public. Star Tribune staff writer Eric Roper told the story of how he is still waiting for public records that he requested from the city of Minneapolis seven months ago.  The city’s explanation? The time has been spent redacting documents that fill a “banker’s box.”