Some Thoughts About Open Data

I’ve long believed that local government’s “job” (besides governing) is to serve as an information broker for residents, businesses, and other agencies. Hence. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assert that an agency’s information management tools, such as Laserfiche, serve as information infrastructure.

Today, almost anyone with search skills can access an overwhelming amount of data over the internet. However, records and data kept by governments require a controlled release and levels of scrutiny before doing so. Other government provides information services include creating internal databases to manage information (Laserfiche), communicating and maintaining awareness services, such as websites, and supporting compliance with various open records acts.

Governments that practice Laserfiche enabled information management, thereby simplifying their practices, tend to be more efficient. There’s an Open Data principle called “one only.” Essentially, citizens should only have to provide the government with personal information such as name, address, phone, etc., once. Then, afterward, the information should be stored centrally to auto-populate when the resident enters their information again. We’ve enabled this database lookup for many of our agency clients. For example, a business wants to renew its business license with the city. They go to the online services section of the municipal website; once they access the form, they start typing in the name of the business, and the rest of the details are grabbed from a central database, and the form fields are populated.

The concept of openness is great, but the other side of the coin is security and privacy. Some data needs to remain private. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between safeguards and access. One use case that comes to mind is a municipality in Northern California. They received a PRR (Public Records Request) that would result in a response containing numerous bank statements, including account numbers. Obviously, account numbers are private information. In the spirit of transparency, the city decided to release the information with the account numbers redacted by hand. Bank statements tend to be large documents with the account number depicted often, so this project took ages. When we heard about their difficulty, we built a workflow in Laserfiche that looked for the account number sequencing and automatically applied the redaction.

Most citizens care very much about how their personal data is managed. Cities in countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Estonia have developed online “citizen folders.” Interestingly, citizens can see if their data is being used or reused and why it is used. Here in the States, we’re not there yet. If you are interested in how the US is doing, consult the OECD OUR Data Index that accesses governments’ efforts to implement open data in three areas: openness, usefulness, and implementation of measures to protect and anonymize personal data before publication.

If you are interested in learning more about using Laserfiche for public records requests and safeguarding private information, we have a webinar coming up on 08/24/21 at 11 AM PDT. Register here, even if you can’t make the date/time, and we’ll send you the link.

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