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March 19, 2014

In Our Opinion: Open NY website doesn't open very much

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The Daily Star

---- — To mark Sunshine Week, which is devoted to open government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Open NY website at data.ny.gov.

“Open NY has broken down artificial barriers and used technology that has put an unprecedented amount of information at New Yorkers’ fingertips,” Cuomo said in a Tuesday media release. “This convenient and easily comparable access to the workings of state government is a testament to the work we have done to make government more accessible, more modern, and more efficient.”

In the release, Cuomo boasts that the website “had more information than any other state data site at launch, including over 200 datasets, maps, and charts from over 30 state agencies and authorities,” and that the volume of data has more than doubled since then.

This sounds great. As journalists, we’re all about open government and transparency. Knowledge is power, and knowledge about the workings of government helps foster an empowered citizenry.

Not only is open government good for our state, it’s also the law. Government bodies are required to make most of their records available to the public, but the process is often cumbersome and costly. So a project such as Open NY sounds great to us.

But we’re not quite ready to throw a ticker-tape parade just yet. Because what isn’t on Open NY is almost as interesting as what is.

Sure, you can find veterans’ burial sites, read about popular baby names and locate all 116 winter farmers’ markets in the state. And there’s information about mental health programs, licensed child care providers, campaign finance contributions and food service establishment inspections. That is useful data that citizens have a right to access, and having it easily searchable online is certainly beneficial.

But what we didn’t find among the hundreds of documents were what we typically think of as government records.

You won’t find much from our local governments on Open NY. You can find budget expenditures and revenue for Suffolk County, or employee earnings for Broome County. But these are two of only five of the state’s 62 counties whose data is available on the website.

And this points out an aspect of Open NY that the governor is less quick to highlight: The site is an aggregator of data already available through other online sources. What Cuomo’s administration has done is taken what’s already out there, and put it into a single database. But the database is so broad that trying to drill down to local data can be frustrating. Search for a zip code such as 13326, and you get every state directory that references Cooperstown, including lists of county seats, certified plant dealers, retail food stores, snowmobile registrations and, yes, farmers’ markets.

The goal behind Open NY is a good one, but the execution could use a little work. And we’d love to see more local data — not just for us, but for everyone — online.