Civic News
Data / Ethics / Municipal government

DC’s restrictions on open data? They’re working on it

The mayor's open government directive, issued in July, is rife with chilling restrictions, say open gov activists. D.C. city government has promised to address their concerns.

Mayor Vincent Gray's open government overhaul has run into several transparency potholes, open government activists say. (Photo by Flickr user Tommy Wells, used under a Creative Commons license)
When D.C. tried to make its open data policy a little more open last month, open government activists were not satisfied. But the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) has weathered the criticism and promised further changes.

“It’s great that they really want to get this right,” said GovTrack founder and local open data champion Joshua Tauberer in an email. A few weeks back, he was wondering in a blog post, “Do I need a lawyer to hack in DC?”
Several aspects of the terms and conditions for using the government’s open data, he noted, put users at risk of a lawsuit. Among other restrictions, it prohibited use of the data in a way that could “give rise to civil liability.”
“This isn’t open,” concluded Tauberer in his post. “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.”
Soon after, the district removed the “civil liability” language from the catalog’s terms and conditions, as reported in great detail by Alexander Howard on open government blog E Pluribus Unum.
Other concerns raised by Tauberer — namely, the status of the older catalog,, which is slowly being replaced by, and attribution requirements, with the data now held under a Creative Commons license — haven’t been addressed yet.
“Every term — especially when it’s unclear — is a barrier,” said Tauberer. “If the city is going to engage with residents on an open data program, they have to build an actual open data program.”
The OCTO has promised to take into account these concerns and make further changes, said communications director Michael Rupert. “This is just the first step,” he said, “to make the data as open as possible.”
The conditions will be updated once “we have a clear understanding of what we are allowed to do,” he added.
Mayor Vincent Gray first promised to overhaul D.C.’s open government policies in July, when he issued his Transparency, Open Government and Open Data Directive.
It did not initially hold up well to the scrutiny of open government groups like the Sunlight Foundation, Code for DC and the D.C. Open Government Coalition.
But one step at a time. At this point, said Rupert, D.C. “want[s] to make the language a little less intimidating and a little less chilling.”
Full disclosure: just found out it has a dog in this race. The mayor’s Flickr photo stream is “all rights reserved,” meaning his pictures can’t be published along with this post.

Companies: Civic Tech DC / Sunlight Foundation

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