Cities around the country are pushing to open up their data to the public. Whether it’s to restore trust in the government, improve transparency, or even help residents avoid parking tickets, cities view open data as a way to improve the citizen experience and potentially save lives.

However, while open data seems easy enough, it’s potentially fraught with difficulties. Cities need to develop open data policies, but that’s easier said than done. The Sunlight Foundation, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology and policy analysis to improve government transparency and accountability, recently released a free Open Data Policy Wizard. The Wizard helps governments design their open data policies through a simple question-and-answer form. To go along with its policy of transparency, the Sunlight Foundation made the Wizard’s code available on GitHub.

The Open Data Policy Wizard helps cities develop open data policies easily and quickly. (Image: Sunlight Foundation)

“We see this Wizard as a step toward our broader vision of democratic policymaking whereby citizens have tools that allow them to engage in the process more easily, and citizens, stakeholders and government officials have tools that allow for collaborative drafting of public policy,” said Greg Jordan-Detamore, local data technologist at the Sunlight Foundation, in a blog post about the Wizard.

While the Wizard helps governments customize their policy, it does caution users to not accept the resulting form blindly.

“This is intended to provide you with a sample for you to work off of and customize for your own place or agency’s needs,” the Wizard says. “Please do not just take the result blindly–read through the policy and make sure you understand all the parts, then fine-tune it to meet your needs.”

The Sunlight Foundation uses a sample “firestarter” policy that it developed in 2015 as the base for the Wizard. The “firestarter” policy incorporates the foundation’s guidelines for open-data policies, which it outlines here. A city representative using the Wizard would need to answer several basic question about their city. Then, the foundation emails them a version of the sample policy with the city’s information filled in. Sunlight Foundation also provides a link to a customized Google Doc that can be directly edited–allowing for easier review and editing from city officials. To go along with its policy of transparency, the Sunlight Foundation made the Wizard’s code available on GitHub.

While the document created by the Wizard is basic and boilerplate, it gives cities a jumping off point. Creating an entire policy from scratch can feel overwhelming, especially a policy that is relatively new across the country. By having something they can edit–rather than something they need to create–cities may be more likely to adopt an open data policy.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs