MNCOGI Statement on Minneapolis Open Data Portal

Posted by: on Jan 12, 2015 | No Comments

One month ago, Minnesota’s largest city launched one of the state’s first general purpose open data portals. MNCOGI applauds the City of Minneapolis for this step in its journey toward transparency and citizen accessibility. MNCOGI also recognizes this opportunity to briefly evaluate the success of the launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal – both for the benefit of future iterations of the Minneapolis open data portal, and for the benefit of any other municipality that is considering an open data policy or portal.

The principal criterion to consider when evaluating the implementation of an open data policy – including Minneapolis’ open data portal – is the extent to which the policy’s implementation enables residents to access and use public government data. In applying this criterion to the open data portal, we will apply this criterion to several aspects of the portal, namely:

  • Portal Usability: Minneapolis’ open data portal includes several features that enable residents to access and use government data, including dataset categorization, search, online data viewing in tabular and several graph formats, sorting and filtering of datasets, subscription to notification of dataset changes, and the ability to embed graphs in other websites. However, as has been noted by others, portions of the open data portal were unusable at the launch of the open data portal due to technical problems, which severely prevented users from accessing and using some datasets.
  • Available Data: At launch, Minneapolis’ open data portal contained a respectable set of 35 data sets, including foundational datasets (administrative boundaries, street centerlines, locations of police & fire stations), datasets concerning city planning, city incident data (police incidents since 2010, reported and confirmed fires since 2012, 311 reports since 2010), NCR funding and contracts, air quality data, and more.
  • Documentation of Data: Most of the above datasets contain little to no documentation concerning the nature of the dataset, the meanings of columns and values, or the means by which the data was collected. In the absence of this documentation, users will often lack context required to understand the meaning of data, which significantly reduces the ability of residents to use the available datasets.
  • Data License: As noted on every page of the Minneapolis open data portal, all datasets on the portal carry a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. By using a Creative Commons license to clarify and remind residents of their legal rights related to government data, the City is supporting the ability of residents to use available datasets to engage in public dialog and build tools using this data.
  • Programmable Access: Minneapolis’ open data portal provides an Application Programmer Interface (API) for available datasets that, while complicated, is extensively documented. The availability of this API enables individuals and organizations to access and use available datasets for novel purposes, presentations, and applications.

The launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal represents a snapshot in the ever changing implementation of Minneapolis’ open data policy. Thus, it is important to also apply the above criterion to the City’s ability to change, and hopefully improve, it’s open data portal. For example, it is notable that while the open data portal experienced serious technical problems at its launch, the City was able to quickly fix these problems.

The culture change that is underway at the City of Minneapolis is commendable, but far from complete. Missing documentation is proof of the incomplete change, as the various city departments that steward the available datasets are also responsible for documenting those datasets, but have not yet prioritized that responsibility. However, the fact that many departments have chosen to actively participate in the open data policy does instill confidence that this culture change will continue, that more open data will be published, and that residents of Minneapolis will continue to gain more access and understanding of their municipal government.

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.

Sincerely,

/s/ Gary Hill
Gary Hill
Board Chair, MNCOGI

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-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.”

Cameras in Courts: MN court committee keeps door open to expanded public access to courtrooms

Posted by: on Oct 2, 2013 | No Comments

A court panel leaves open the possibility for a continuation of the current experimental rules allowing limited use of still and video camera access in the state’s courtrooms. A recommendation issued October 1 notes “the committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings” during a two-year pilot project scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. The court’s General Rules Committee is made up of judges and attorneys from various jurisdictions around the state. Read the full recommendation here. Minnesota Supreme Court justices will make the final decision.

The committee also touched on the possibility of expanding camera access to some criminal proceedings, but such a move will probably require a new round of scrutiny.

The report reflects concern by some members of the panel during their Sept. 20 meeting that they have very little information to go on since there were few media requests to bring cameras into courtrooms. At that meeting, WCCO news producer Joan Gilbertson talked about the difficulty of navigating the sometimes confusing process of the civil cases that organizations were limited to covering during the pilot project. She said the proceedings are readily postponed and often settled before the parties ever enter a courtroom. “I would like to court to step up and present (media organizations) with some cases they want covered,” Gilbertson said. WCCO aired more than a half dozen stories about civil cases during the pilot project highlighting the fact that it was the first time such access was available in Minnesota.

Minnesota is one of 12 states that effectively bar camera use in court proceedings. Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota all allow camera use by media organizations for both civil and criminal court cases.

Minnesota courts to decide the future of courtroom camera access

Posted by: on Sep 23, 2013 | No Comments

 

After two years of limited camera access to Minnesota district courtrooms, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether to extend, expand or halt the practice of giving greater public access to the judicial process.

This week, the Court’s General Rules Committee will issue a recommendation to reflect the views expressed during their meeting Sept. 20th. This same committee in 2011 voted 16 to 3 against the current pilot project. The Supreme Court justices ultimately rejected that recommendation.

At Friday’s meeting, attorney Mark Anfinson asked for an extension of the current experimental project to allow video and still cameras in courtrooms during civil cases at the judge’s discretion. He also suggested expanding the test to allow cameras during criminal court cases. He cited some two dozen examples of media requests for camera access during the test period with no negative issues arising either from judges or media organizations. WCCO producer Joan Gilbertson presented samples of her organization’s coverage of civil cases.

The members of the committee praised the coverage, but their conclusions of the pilot are mixed.

Hon. Robert Walker, a one-time opponent of allowing cameras in courtrooms, expressed his wish to not let momentum for the current project die. He suggests allowing cameras in additional ‘safe and appropriate’ settings such as the state’s drug and veterans courtrooms.

The Hon. Mel Dickstein said the examples of courtroom coverage presented at the meeting were ‘quite good’. Still, he sees the recent pilot as a ‘lost opportunity’ for the media to tell more stories that arose from civil courtrooms. He said he’s unconvinced that the pilot produced enough compelling evidence that the practice of allowing cameras should continue, much less expand to criminal proceedings.

White House Launches Comprehensive Open Government Plan

Posted by: on Dec 9, 2009 | No Comments

December 8, 2009 — The Obama administration released the Comprehensive Open Government Plan today. Administered through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the president demanded the directive be built around three main principles – transparency, participation, and collaboration. Specific requirements and deadlines are outlined for all agencies, and the directive centers on four main components: publishing information; creating a culture of openness; improving data quality; and updating policies to allow for greater openness.

Read the Open Government Directive

Commentary:
OMB Watch
National Security Archive Unredacted Blog
Steve Aftergood’s Secrecy News Blog
“Why an Open Government Matters”

 
Video:
The announcement was streamed live with U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, followed by a web forum where individuals could ask questions. Watch the video below, or at whitehouse.gov

Minnesota’s data practices law – a look to the future

Posted by: on Oct 12, 2009 | No Comments

COGI-tations: A program of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 – Event Photos
4:30 – 6:00 p.m.
Midtown Commons, 2324 University Ave West, St. Paul (just East of Raymond)
Women Venture meeting room
Free and convenient parking West of the Midtown Commons complex.

An open discussion of changing needs, many the result of technology. A chance to review the principles that undergird the state’s unique data practices law. Come prepared to share issues, experience, a vision of future challenges and practical suggestions for needed change.

Resource people, on hand to provide context and answer questions, include John R. Finnegan, Sr, Jane Kirtley, Kirsten Clark, Don Gemberling
& other members of the MnCOGI Board.

Learn more:

The Public’s Business: More People Are Knocking at the Door – Let Them In, by Jane Kirtley, 3/15/2009*.

Our Open-Government Laws Need to be Stronger and Clearer, by Jane Kirtley, 6/5/2009*.

* Articles posted with permission of the author, Jane Kirtley, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

COGI-tations are public forums sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.All COGI-tations are free and open to the public.