A small but growing number of state officials are warming to the idea of greater transparency and open access to raw government data, following a budding trend across the country.
In the latest example, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, wrote to numerous Texas agencies, urging them to post "high-value" databases online in open-standard formats, a move he says could prompt the public to develop tools to explore them. "Texas has the opportunity to regain its leadership role in the area of transparency — without the need for agencies to design expensive applications through which the public would view that data," he wrote.
Watson is calling for a state data portal, something similar to the federal government's data.gov, a week before a state House committee chaired by Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, will meet to discuss government transparency and accountability. Among other things, the panel is expected to discuss the possibility of a "dynamic information clearinghouse" and increased electronic disclosure of budgetary information.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, who already posts searchable records online, recently told her staff to compile and test the agency's own Open Data Center repository, which is expected to launch later this month with several raw data sets.
The efforts follow a national trend, propelled by technology, to make more government records available in raw formats. In addition to President Obama's Open Government Initiative, several states, including Maine, Utah, California, Michigan and Massachusetts, have created data pages. Cities, including San Francisco and New York, are also releasing large data sets — and noticing that private developers are building applications that make sense of them.
Numerous state agencies, including the Texas Ethics Commission, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Texas Legislative Council, release raw data on their websites. Creating a centralized location for those records could make it easier for the public to access them, advocates argue.
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for more government transparency, especially through new technology, believes the transparency should come at two levels. First, agencies can make data accessible with its own applications — searchable lobbying reports, for example — that the public can understand. Second, they can post raw data, in open formats such as .xml or .csv, so that more sophisticated consumers can develop online tools.
The challenge, he said, is convincing agencies to devote the time and resources to compile and present the records, some of which reside on older computer systems. "Transparency is one thing that people agree on, regardless of what their party or position is," Wonderlich said. "What you need to do is explain the value proposition to the agencies — that they will be trusted more, and more highly regarded, and that they will be a source for accountability and business. And they'll create an opportunity for the public to participate in government."
Listen to Watson discuss the issue — and the possibility of convincing others in government to go along: