The Growing Significance of Open Data Initiatives on Public Records Requests

At its core, open data seeks to make it easier for residents and government entities to work together. Open data is considered to be publicly available information that can be universally and readily accessed, used, and redistributed free of charge in a digital format. When government data is open, it creates an environment of transparency and accountability and potentially results in more effective collaboration and communication among residents and government agencies. 

Implementing open data initiatives, however, can be easier said than done; and its implications are incredibly far-reaching. From protecting PII, to meeting the necessary data formatting requirements, there are many factors which go into establishing an open data policy for public records. There certainly are benefits of open data initiatives; but it is important to evaluate the impact open data is actually having on public records requests.

Necessary Resources to Create Open Data Initiatives

Creating open data is no easy feat; it requires substantial resources, including, staff, training, time, and money. Budget requirements vary based on individual agency needs, but could be up to $500,000 to acquire additional staff (if deemed necessary after an evaluation) and specialized software. File digitization takes time; and determining what data would be included in the initiative will require quite a bit of oversight — especially as an agency takes its first steps into open data.

Government agencies should work smarter, not harder when it comes to implementing open data. If budget allows, new employees may be added to support the initiative; but depending on an agency’s needs and resources, additional staff are not necessarily required to implement open data. Current employees could be reassigned or take on new responsibilities to facilitate the open data initiative. For example, an existing chief data officer may add oversight of the implementation and execution of open data to their list of duties.

Benefits of Open Data Initiatives

Government officials must weigh the effort it takes to implement open data against the potential benefits and determine whether there is value. Once distilled and presented in the right format, the value of data increases. For the most part, proactive data disclosure has benefits, including:

  • Transparency — Open data allows for easier public monitoring of government activities and encourages greater citizen participation in government.
  • Public service improvement — Citizens can use open data to contribute to the improvement of public services and provide feedback.
  • Innovation and economic value — Open data creates opportunities for collaboration, allowing citizens to provide feedback on public services and giving businesses the ability to better understand their markets.
  • Efficiency — Once open data is in place, citizens have the ability to find the data they are seeking, helping preserve resources that would have otherwise been used to fulfill public records requests. Additionally, it becomes more efficient and cost-effective for government entities to access data from other jurisdictions.

What is the Impact of Open Data on Public Records?

Though it seems the prevalence of open data would help lower the volume of FOIA requests, that is not always the case. In fact, some government agencies are seeing an increase in requests since the onset of open data initiatives. During a seven-year period of open data policy, public records requests rose from under 600,000 to well over 700,000.

Though the rise in requests seems to fly in the face of reason, there may be a couple reasons for the increased request volume. Open data creates a growing culture of openness which can spur more requests for other information. Once a citizen realizes that certain information is available in an open data environment, they might be more inclined to request additional information in the future, creating an increase in the number of overall public records requests.

Public records types vary widely but not all are necessarily available in an open data environment. The most popular information topics requested in open data include:

  • Police and crime
  • Transportation
  • Emergency calls
  • Development
  • Building safety
  • Finance
  • Elections
  • Businesses and licenses
  • Inspections and service requests
  • Education

When requesters have received information so easily in an open data environment, they may pursue additional requests which are not necessarily readily available through open data. People may file public records requests they may not have prior to their experience with open data, thus increasing volume.

Managing Your Open Data Initiatives

State and local government agencies charged with implementing and managing an open data initiative will find support with configurable public records software that can integrate with open data platforms. Some public records software, like GovQA, even comes with proactive posting functions that allow agencies to select and publicly post for “all-access” those records and response packages which have especially broad appeal. After consulting with the community and other stakeholders about the resources needed to implement open data, as well as determining which records to include in the initiative, jurisdictions may find even greater efficiencies pairing open data initiatives with software designed to help reduce requests and automate actions.

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The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, live roundtables, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to peers@govqa.com.

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