Forget the FOIA Request: Cities, States Open Data Portals

in MediaShift (PBS): “In almost any city you can read your local leaders’ emails if you formally ask for them. In Gainesville, Fla., all you have to do is go here.
In most states you can find out how tax dollars are being spent if you officially request expenditure records. In Wisconsin, you just click here.
For the last 50 years, governments have given up public records in response to Freedom of Information requests. But a number of public agencies are learning the value of proactively providing information before anyone has to ask for it.
The trend is part of the open-data movement that most large cities and the federal government have already begun to embrace. The information itself can range from simple emails to complex datasets, but the general idea is the same: Deliver information directly to the public using digital tools that can save money and serve the goal of government transparency.
…And there’s the added benefit of helping the bottom line. Users don’t have to request information if it’s already posted, saving agencies time and money, and a centralized FOIA tracking system can further streamline processing.
Sean Moulton of the Center for Effective Government testified before Congress that full participation in FOIAonline could save federal agencies an estimated $40 million per year in processing costs.
And Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit that pushes for transparency in New York, estimated in a June report that New York City could reduce FOI-related costs by 66 percent – from $20 million per year down to $7 million – by adopting an open-data system and doing away with its “hodgepodge of paper-based methods that are expensive, slow and unreliable.”
So…What’s the Catch?
In their survey, chief information officers were asked to name the top three barriers to advancing open data in state government. Fifty-three percent cited “agencies’ willingness to publish data,” and 49 percent cited “the reliability of the data.”
Information is of little value to the public if it’s faulty or too complex to understand. It could become a way for agencies to claim they’re being transparent without actually providing anything useful.
Plus, some worry that public servants will self-censor if they know, for example, their emails are automatically being shared with the world….”