Minneapolis’ watered down Open Data Policy


MinneapolisThe City of Minneapolis passed an official Open Data policy on June 30th which “sets in motion the creation of an open data portal so new kinds of City data can be accessed online by the public.”

This represents a concerted effort towards increasing transparency, consistency and ease of access for residents, researchers, reporters and developers who often interface with any of the various 24+ departments operating under the hierarchy of Mayor Betsy Hodges and a 13 person City Council.

“By making the City of Minneapolis’ data available online, the public can use it in a variety of ways, including to help identify efficient solutions for government, to promote innovative strategies for social progress and to create economic opportunities.”

Minneapolis has taken a clear leadership position relative to its twin city and the State at large, considering that neither St. Paul or the State of Minnesota have an open data policy to speak of.

In essence, the policy as it stands, boils down to an ‘Open Data Portal’ set to launch on/by November 27, 2014. This is intended to host each department’s data sets for download, API access, standardization, search engine crawling, user feedback and general maintenance — ultimately acting as the primary source for all of Minneapolis’ public data.

While the City’s data vault has been unlocked to some degree, the door is far from open because a portal (read: website) is only as valuable to the world as the information therein and the utility of what’s readily available.

What is not mentioned in the press release, or articulated in Open Twin Cities’ interpretation are loopholes left wide open after a June 30th meeting and subsequent policy enactment (min 75).

But first, let’s rewind, because it’s important to understand how we got here.

A groundswell of interest from many open data stakeholders culminated over the years and self organized under Open Twin Cities in the fall of 2012. Open Twin Cities members, acting individually and collectively, led to a more formal ‘Open Data Group’ within the Minneapolis IT department, spearheaded by City CIO Otto Doll.

This working group was started in early 2014 and consists of department staff, Council Member Andrew Johnson, and “subject matter experts from outside City government.” They alone are responsible for determining Minneapolis’ open data direction, yet the formation wasn’t meant to be public according to both Doll and Johnson.

This invite only club has no transparency or accountability, contrary to the very nature of subject matter at hand; the group does not list members by name, hold public meetings or document discussions.

This veil of opacity at the core, by nature, is the antithesis of open and engaging.

With that history in mind, the we now know the tangible outcome of this Open Data Policy is the establishment of said portal.  However, there no requirement for any department to participate in adding their data.  It’s worth repeating: a department’s participation in data sharing and publishing on the City’s Open Data Portal is completely optional.

This is a critically important element, one which Council Member Andrew Johnson considers to be “watered down,” as it deviates from the original language and intended outcome of the initial policy proposed.

During the last minute discussions, a few key words were changed (final redlines) to essentially ‘ensure that one department was not imposing economic pressure on another’ in terms of additional staffing responsibilities.’ Council members expressed valid concern about one department (IT) mandating other departments to bear the unfunded burden of a new data compliance framework.

While this may seem a compromised balance between departments, the City’s constituents lose. With respect to the objective of increasing transparency, efficiency and opportunity — having an open data policy and a portal does not equate to actually having open data.

As Council Member Glidden rhetorically asked (min 103), “If someone [from a department] doesn’t come to this [Open Data Group] meeting, I don’t know what Mr. Doll is going to do anyway?”

Only time will tell what departments participate and to what degree, but unfortunately there’s currently no recourse for opting-out.

“What’s the point of a policy if participation is optional?” Johnson continues.  “Is an anti-discrimination policy optional? Is it optional for departments to work with HR when hiring? Is it optional to follow procurement policies?”

Doll is more optimistic, suggesting that required annual department reviews may create praise for early adopters or pressure for the resistors. “I would say this policy could change over time,” he asserts, suggesting that broader measures may need to be taken to reach a true level of open data for Minneapolis. In the current scenario, it would be one full year before a review would even commence.

There are no currently no commitments, plans, or timelines for holistic department datasets (estimated between 2,000 – 3,000 unique databases) to actually be published come November — or anytime thereafter. While Doll genuinely “hopes that departments will participate,” the policy passed remains more theoretical than applicable until proven otherwise.

“It’s a sign of cultural resistance of some pockets in the City and I think that’s going to need to change,” Johnson concludes.

In that vein (and with years of personal observation, interviews, events and reporting on open data within Minnesota) this theme of culture is quite recurring.  Culture, as a conceptual narrative, seems to be the biggest barrier to progress when peeling back the layers of friction between where we are and where we could be in terms of open data.

City Council Members also noted the culture change that the policy will need to affect.

Council Member Bender specifically described the policy as a “moderate first step that reflects culture.”  Council Chair Glidden observed that the policy is an evolution of government sunshine laws and  “As a caveat for that, this is a cultural change and with any culture change, we need to be careful and respectful when working through issues.”

If the purported promise of open data is to “identify efficient solutions for government, to promote innovative strategies for social progress and to create economic opportunities.” — is it better to wait or to create?

Culture in this context is a two-sided coin: there’s the City’s internal culture and then there’s the City’s external culture, the one which those non-goverment employees are a part of — residents, tax payers, voters and collective constituents.

Within the City government, Doll describes departments grappling with ‘my data’ vs. ‘our data’ status-quo mindset, which isn’t far off from the culture clash underway between the public and their expectations of those elected to serve their needs. ‘Our data’ has become the mantra of those championing for better access, while the City as a whole still holds much more of the ‘my data’ mentality.

Keep in mind that much of the data in question is legally public domain by default, says Minnesota’s Data Practices Act (DPA).

“For years these departments didn’t really have to share their information with the public to accomplish their mission,” Doll explains. “What we’re driving towards is that good things can happen when data is shared openly.  I think this is what our people need to be comfortable with in order for it happen.”

Open data has, through advancements in modern technology, become part of the customs within a progressive culture defined by certain values.  To that degree, Minneapolis’ Open Data Policy is commendable initiative, one that does in fact represent a very palpable and significant cultural change underway.

The potential benefit to Minnesota’s technology industry at large and the entrepreneurial ecosystem within cannot be understated. Opening data not only builds trust within constituents, strengthening culture, but it also attracts creative and capable minds seeking to apply their intellectual capacities towards improving quality of life for themselves and their neighbors.

True open data enables new and existing companies to address real problems and be remunerated through mutual value exchange.  This is the basis for business and the City is decidedly impeding on such advancements until comprehensively opening data.

This untapped open data economy can empower civic technologists turned entrepreneurs with the right means to accomplish their goals that solve real problems that involve invention, input and risk. That’s one area where a City or State government policy could actually support technology startups.

Of course, all this ultimately comes at the expense of reduced government overhead and unprecedented levels of public transparency.

Every passing day represents missed opportunity to leverage open data in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the greater State of Minnesota. For those who believe in a culture of civic engagement, government transparency, and economic prosperity — it’s time to get real about the open data situation in Minnesota.


  • Scott Cole

    Great article Jeff! Very thorough, and good balance between critical assessment and the upsides of this policy in its current state. Thanks!