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5 Open tenets of the new NYSenate.gov

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The New York State Senate launched a new feature rich website last month. It comes complete with lots of neat open government features. The site is open and clean with a similar presentation layout to many of the new Obama Administration sites, such as whitehouse.gov and recovery.gov. It’s easily navigable, and is heavily focused on creating a consistent and user-friendly visual experience. Along with this it provides a specific area for  Open source software and services.

Federal News Radio has a good interview with Andrew Hoppin (CIO of the New York Senate) regarding this initiative.

The new site has received many favorable reviews particularly in how it adheres to principles outlined in the Obama Administration’s memo on Transparency and Open Government. In relation to Openness, the top five principles upon which the site is based include:

1. Open Source software

The site was developed by a team from Advomatic using the free and Open source software. The Drupal Content Management System already powers other Federal websites, with the most prominent example being recovery.gov. The development team have outlined many of the modules used to create the site at Drupal.org, and intend to contribute back specific code and refinements. These contributions are at the heart of the Opensource methodology. It’s also a key ingredient in how government technology can be more transparent and collaborative.

The Senate recognizes that it has a responsibility to give back to the Open Source community, and as such all the NY Senate source code is published on Github at http://github.com/nysenatecio. This means that any developers could potentially create a copy of the site using the same Open source technology. Allowing other agencies to create replicas of the site is a fantastic gesture of sharing and collaboration from the Senate.

One of the actionable items resulting from the recent Open Government Brainstorm was to utilize “good collaboration practices in web and other technology design”.  The greater use of Open source software – as advocated by many with the administration – can create a more collaborative relationship between citizens and government, along with reducing the $71 billion Federal IT budget.

2. Open Content distribution

The site content is available under a Creative Commons license.  The license used is the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This means that the site text, pictures and graphics are free to be copied and distributed so long as appropriate attribution is provided.

While this is not as liberal a policy as Whitehouse.gov (which uses an Attribution 3.0 license allowing for the remixing of content), it is more open than many other state sites. For example, the recently relaunched Utah.gov uses a Copyright (All Rights Reserved) license for its content. This is disappointing given the impressive Web 2.0, transparency and open data features of the site.

3. Open Data area

As part of New York Senate’s commitment to transparency and openness, an Open Data section displays various documents relating to Stimulus spending and Senate budgets. Documents also include expenditure reports detailing how the Senate spends funds appropriated for its operation. This includes salary payments, travel expenses and lump sum payments by Senators and staff offices.

While Clay Johnson’s criticism on the format of the files (i.e. PDF and not adhering to Open data principles) is justified, it is nonetheless a step forward in terms of transparency and accountability. Given various controversies over Senate spending, the release of this data can only help – in the long term at least – increase trust between citizens and their elected representatives.

APIs

The New York Senate provides a developer API to help organizations and individuals compile the Senate data the way they want. This means records from the Legislative Retrieval System (LRS) are available in an open format and can be queried via a simple RESTful API to produce output in many formats – XML (RSS, ATOM), JSON, CSV etc.

4. Open to new ideas

The site solicits ideas on how to make New York State better. Through crowdsourcing it wants to encourage ‘citizen participation in the legislative process’.  As a result, three idea portals have been created encouraging the public to discuss ideas relating to Campaign Finance, Property taxes and Ethics Reform.

The site utilizes the ideascale platform, which was also used by the National Academy of Public Administration for the Open Government brainstorm. The current status of idea particpation includes:

  • Property Tax: 36 ideas, 48 comments and 5134 votes
  • Campaign Finance: 53 ideas, 18 comments and 1581 votes
  • Ethics Reform:  7 ideas, 1 comment and 9 votes

Many of the Property tax ideas and comments relate to a specific piece of legislation relating to tax credits and tax reform. Through the provision of a discussion venue citizens can actively debate the pros and cons of legislation going through the Senate. This can serve to further engage people in civic debate with their elected representatives, and serves to make them accountable for their votes on specific issues. Increasing this kind of civic participation and the accountability of elected representatives is one of the primary aspirations of the Open government movement.

5. Open to commenting and sharing

The site is Open for citizens to comment current legislation under consideration by the senate. It describes this as a ‘virtual version of a session where legislative committees amend bill texts’ and is a New York specific version of the Federal site publicmarkup.org. Sections of legislative text can be commented on, with permalinks making these much easier to cite.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) data feeds are readily available for much of the site, including News, Blog posts, Senator updates and calendars (also available in ical format).

The use of Web 2.0 tools and platform is heavily promoted throughout the site. The New York Senate has its own Twitter (1013 followers) and Facebook (364 fans) account. It also highlights Senator profiles on these platforms if applicable. Along with this they maintain a Youtube account for legislative updates, press conferences and interviews.  Much of this content e.g. photos, videos, blog posts can be easily shared through the use of many standard Web 2.0 sharing services available throughout the site.

The use of Open APIs, Open source software (including giving away the source code), and Open data set the New York Senate apart from many other government websites. Notwithstanding some issues regarding Open data formats and lack of an XML sitemap it’s a model for State openness and transparency. Other New York State online services e.g Stimulus tracker, NYCStatTech talk and Open Book ensure the State is one of the most open and transparent in the country.

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