Open government advocates: terms and conditions mean DC open data is fauxpen data

500px-WilsonbldgEarlier this summer, this blog covered the launch of District of Columbia’s executive order on open government, open data policy, open data platform and online FOIA portal. Last week, the Sunlight Foundation laid out what DC should have done differently with its open data policy.

“The evolution of open data policies since 2006 provides a chance for stakeholders to learn from and build on what’s been accomplished so far,” wrote policy associate Alisha Green. “This summer, a new executive directive from Mayor Vincent Gray’s office could have taken advantage of that opportunity for growth, It fell far short, however. The scope, level of detail, and enforceability of the policy seem to reveal a lack of seriousness about making a significant improvement on DC’s 2006 memorandum.”

Green says that DC’s robust legal, technology and advocacy community’s input should have helped shape more of the policy and that “the policy should have been passed through the legislative, not executive, process.” Opportunities, missed.

Yesterday, civic hacker and Govtrack.us founder Joshua Tauberer took the critique one step further, crying foul over the terms of use in the DC data catalog.

“The specter of a lawsuit hanging over the heads of civic hackers has a chilling effect on the creation of projects to benefit the public, even though they make use of public data released for that express purpose,” he wrote. “How does this happen? Through terms of service, terms of use, and copyright law.”

The bottom line, in Tauberer’s analysis, is that the District oF Columbia’s open data isn’t truly open. To put it another way, it’s fauxpen data.

“Giving up the right to take legal action and being required to follow extremely vague rules in order to use public data are not hallmarks of an open society,” writes Tauberer. “These terms are a threat that there will be a lawsuit, or even criminal prosecution, if civic hackers build apps that the District doesn’t approve of. It has been a long-standing tenant that open government data must be license-free in order to truly be open to use by the public. If there are capricious rules around the reuse of it, it’s not open government data. Period. Code for DC noted this specifically in our comments to the mayor last year. Data subject to terms of use isn’t open. The Mayor should update his order to direct that the city’s “open data” be made available a) without restriction and b) with an explicit dedication to the public domain.”

In the wake of these strong, constructive critiques, I posted an update in an online open government community wondering what the chances ar that DC public advocates, technologists, lawyers, wonks, librarians and citizens will go log on to the DC government’s open government platform, where the order is hosted, and suggest changes to the problematic policy? So far, few have.

The issue also hasn’t become a serious issue for the outgoing administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, or in the mayoral campaign between Muriel Bowser and David Catania, who both sit on the DC Council.

The issues section of Bowser’s website contains a positive but short, vague commitment to “improved government”: “DC needs a government that works for the people and is open to the people,” it reads. “Muriel will open our government so that DC residents have the ability to discuss their concerns and make suggestions of what we can do better.”

By way of contrast, Catania published a 128 page platform online that includes sections on “democracy for the District” and “accountable government.”(Open data advocates, take note: the document was published on Scribd, not as plaintext or HTML.) The platform includes paragraphs on improving access to government information, presenting information in user-friendly formats, eradicating corruption and rooting out wasteful spending.

Those are all worthy goals, but I wonder whether Catania knows that the city’s current policy and the executive order undermines the ability and incentives for journalists, NGOs, entrepreneurs and the District’s residents to apply the information he advocates disclosing for the purposes intended.

Last week, I asked Bowser and Catania how their administrations would approach open data in the District.

To date, I’ve heard no reply. I’ve also reached out to DC’s Office of Open Government. If I hear from any party, I’ll update this post.

Update: In answer to a question I posed, the Twitter account for DC.gov, which manages DC’s online presence and the open data platform in question as part of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, indicated that “new terms and conditions [were] coming shortly.” No further details were offered.

One thought on “Open government advocates: terms and conditions mean DC open data is fauxpen data

  1. Pingback: In a win for open government advocacy, DC removes flaws its municpal open data policy | E Pluribus Unum

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