How Open are Massachusetts Municipal Data?

Posted: December 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

My first peer-reviewed journal article was published this month by the Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), an open access journal published by a leading geographic information systems (GIS) professional organization. Titled “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data,” it reports the result of a public records request for GIS data I submitted to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities. Here is the abstract:

Increasingly, citizens are demanding access to raw data from governments to hold public officials accountable, look up facts, conduct analysis, or create innovative applications and services. Cities and towns create data using geographic information systems such as layers describing parcels, zoning, and infrastructure that are useful for a wide range of purposes. Through a public records request to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, this paper investigates whether these data are accessible to citizens in practice. Some response was received by 78.6 percent of the municipalities. Two municipalities refused access to all electronic records. Many others charged fees ranging up to $453 or placed legal restrictions on the data through licensing that could chill or prohibit creative reuses of the information through emerging technologies. Other practical barriers limited public access to data, such as limited resources, government officials’ limited technical knowledge, and outsourcing to private vendors. A followup survey among municipalities that did not respond to the request was conducted to determine if they had GIS systems or data policies, and this information was collected for 80.3 percent of the municipalities. Finally, the paper discusses the legal, policy, and technical steps that can be taken by governments to move from a “public records” to an “open government” paradigm for transparency of government data. The policy recommendations for municipalities include publishing GIS data for free online and with minimal legal restrictions.

The paper started as a class project for the MIT class “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier” I took in Fall 2010. This research is related to the work I did at the City of Boston, where in 2010 I developed an open government strategy proposing how the city could use technology to achieve transparency, participation, and collaboration goals.

Goodspeed, Robert. 2011. “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data” (PDF) Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association 23 : 1, p. 21-32.

See also:
> What Government Data Should be Transparent?
> Public Sector Innovation: Learning from History (on local GIS technology adoption)

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