Open Data, Open States

(The following are my notes from a panel discussion I attended at the National Conference of State Legislatures. These notes do not reflect my opinion on the subject matter, but rather serve to let you read what the dialogue was and with whom.)


James Turk: Open Data, Open States




This session discusses the accessibility of government data. The premise is how one non-profit organization, Open Space, has built an infrastructure of government data accessibility. They discuss how they accomplished their goal, what information is available, their key principles as they developed this project, and gave several examples of how accessible government open data has made its way into the private sector affecting our lives every day.



Everyblock Chicago: puts the crime in Chicago into an easily readable website

GPS: these are government images shared; makes the navigation system in your car possible

National Weather Service:  makes all that weather data available to the public; weather channel

Open 311: public can communicate with their government on happenings/needs/concerns in the city


Governments have been worried about releasing data for fear of what people would do with that data, but the data has been released and made publicly available without problems


10 principles of Open Government Data

Completeness – put it all out there

Privacy – make sure original source data is available

Timeliness – make sure it is released in a time frame that is useful

Ease of Access – making sure site is accessible, that data can be reached across multi-media platforms

Machine Readable – put the information into a format that people can read and manipulate

Non-discrimination of use – this data belongs to the public, created by public employees on public time; make certain there is no wall or barrier to access this information

Use of Standards – governmental entities should look to what other governmental entities  have done and try to use a general format

Licensing – if it’s public data, then do not put a license on it; some things, like video feeds, do have copyright protection

Permanence – Keep the data over time, same URL, where people can still find the data after the fact

Usage costs –there really is not a reason to charge for data because the costs to produce are not what they use to be


Open Legislative Data History

1995 – (clearinghouse of information coming from Congress)

2004 – (attempts to link the data made available with nice interface)

2006 – Sunlight Foundation founded; wanted to expand citizens access to information; created mobile apps; apps contests; established OpenCongress which allowed citizens to communicate with their elected officials

2007 – 8 Principles of Open Gov’t Data established




  • Legislation
  • Legislators
  • Committees
  • Votes
  • Events


  • Validate – make certain the data is correct
  • Augment
  • Normalize – standard terms


  • Bulk data
  • API – a way for computers to talk to each other
  • Web and mobile interfaces – make certain data can be read by Android, iOS, etc.


But how do you do this with limited funds, as a non-profit? What are the issues to address?

  • Difficult to gather data from all 50 states
  • Information is spread across 166 unique websites (some states with multiple data sites)
  • Bulk data was only accessible for 30% of what they were looking at
  • when bulk data is available, some was incomplete


Guiding Principles

  • Data first – need to have all the data before your work
  • Assume nothing
  • Standardization efforts – uniformity of terms
  • Be open source – make sure what they have collected is available; if these guys lose funding it is set up that somebody else could continue the work



  • Data for all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico
  • 312,000 bills
  • 8,500 legislators
  • 2,750,000 actions
  • 230,000 roll call
  • 620,000 documents
  • 47,000,000+ API requests (people who have used the data, requested information)


Here is their information on me:


Q: What were costs?

A: Use Amazon cloud services; maybe less than $500,000


Q: Have you cost the state money?

A: No, we use data already available; no complaints from states so far; states have even offered to work with these guys


Q: Have you considered expanding into financial data for states?

A: Yes, maybe going into state budgets; already looking at it; want to be very careful; do not want to mislead anyone


Q: Can you group legislation across the states by topic?

A: Playing with it; using state’s current topics


Q: Are you going to look at rulemaking authority, post session?

A: No; have not looked at it; bigger than their current team

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