MNCOGI Statement on Minneapolis Open Data Portal

One month ago, Minnesota’s largest city launched one of the state’s first general purpose open data portals. MNCOGI applauds the City of Minneapolis for this step in its journey toward transparency and citizen accessibility. MNCOGI also recognizes this opportunity to briefly evaluate the success of the launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal – both for the benefit of future iterations of the Minneapolis open data portal, and for the benefit of any other municipality that is considering an open data policy or portal.

The principal criterion to consider when evaluating the implementation of an open data policy – including Minneapolis’ open data portal – is the extent to which the policy’s implementation enables residents to access and use public government data. In applying this criterion to the open data portal, we will apply this criterion to several aspects of the portal, namely:

  • Portal Usability: Minneapolis’ open data portal includes several features that enable residents to access and use government data, including dataset categorization, search, online data viewing in tabular and several graph formats, sorting and filtering of datasets, subscription to notification of dataset changes, and the ability to embed graphs in other websites. However, as has been noted by others, portions of the open data portal were unusable at the launch of the open data portal due to technical problems, which severely prevented users from accessing and using some datasets.
  • Available Data: At launch, Minneapolis’ open data portal contained a respectable set of 35 data sets, including foundational datasets (administrative boundaries, street centerlines, locations of police & fire stations), datasets concerning city planning, city incident data (police incidents since 2010, reported and confirmed fires since 2012, 311 reports since 2010), NCR funding and contracts, air quality data, and more.
  • Documentation of Data: Most of the above datasets contain little to no documentation concerning the nature of the dataset, the meanings of columns and values, or the means by which the data was collected. In the absence of this documentation, users will often lack context required to understand the meaning of data, which significantly reduces the ability of residents to use the available datasets.
  • Data License: As noted on every page of the Minneapolis open data portal, all datasets on the portal carry a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. By using a Creative Commons license to clarify and remind residents of their legal rights related to government data, the City is supporting the ability of residents to use available datasets to engage in public dialog and build tools using this data.
  • Programmable Access: Minneapolis’ open data portal provides an Application Programmer Interface (API) for available datasets that, while complicated, is extensively documented. The availability of this API enables individuals and organizations to access and use available datasets for novel purposes, presentations, and applications.

The launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal represents a snapshot in the ever changing implementation of Minneapolis’ open data policy. Thus, it is important to also apply the above criterion to the City’s ability to change, and hopefully improve, it’s open data portal. For example, it is notable that while the open data portal experienced serious technical problems at its launch, the City was able to quickly fix these problems.

The culture change that is underway at the City of Minneapolis is commendable, but far from complete. Missing documentation is proof of the incomplete change, as the various city departments that steward the available datasets are also responsible for documenting those datasets, but have not yet prioritized that responsibility. However, the fact that many departments have chosen to actively participate in the open data policy does instill confidence that this culture change will continue, that more open data will be published, and that residents of Minneapolis will continue to gain more access and understanding of their municipal government.

MNCOGI letter in support of, and recommendations for, Minneapolis open data policy

On July 14th, MNCOGI sent the following letter to Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson concerning the then draft Open Data Policy. This letter served as both a show of support for the issue of open data in Minneapolis, and a set of recommended changes to the draft policy in order to better align the Open Data Policy with the Minnesota Data Practices Act and federal data laws.

On July 30th, the Minneapolis City Council adopted an amended version of this Open Data Policy.

The following letter is also available for download as a PDF.

Gary Hill
Board Chair
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information

July 14th, 2014

Council Member Andrew Johnson
350 South 5th Street
Room 307
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Dear Council Member Johnson,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a non-profit organization dedicated to government transparency and public access to information. Our members support the aims and intentions of the city’s proposed “Open Data” policy, and we wish Minneapolis success in moving ahead with its initiative.

Bill Bushey (a MNCOGI board member who has been closely involved in discussions regarding the proposed policy) has shared a draft with our members for the purposes of gathering feedback. MNCOGI has evaluated the draft, and offers the following general comments:

1. Overall, we would urge that the draft language be modified in certain places to more closely align with terminology used in Chapter 13 of the Minnesota Statutes. This should be done in order to avoid any interpretive issues related to the implementation of the Open Data Policy within the general framework of the Data Practices Act.

For instance, the language within the “Department Responsibilities” section that describes “private” data should be modified to conform to the terminology of Chapter 13. Instead of labeling such data as simply “private,” it should be labeled as either “not public” data, or alternately, “private data on individuals, nonpublic data, or protected nonpublic data.” Please also note that “administrative cost concerns” are not permissible reasons to make data “not public” under Chapter 13.

2. We would also urge that the Open Data Policy clearly articulate the role of the Data Practices Responsible Authority (RA) within the work-flow structure of the Open Data initiative, due to the RA’s key role in administering data access under Chapter 13. In MNCOGI’s opinion, all city personnel responsible for implementing the Open Data Policy should be under the purview of the RA.

3. Finally, we would urge the city to evaluate potential liability issues related to unintentional disclosures of data classified as “not public” under state or federal law. This would be a “best practices” step that would be worth undertaking, given the potential scale of the data releases that the city would be making. Data policies like this one are cutting-edge projects, and MNCOGI wishes to see them crafted in concert with all applicable statutory requirements, so that they may become models for similar, future activities.

Please feel free to contact us with any additional follow-up questions. We appreciate your efforts to move the concept of government transparency into this new and innovative era.


/s/ Gary Hill
Gary Hill
Board Chair, MNCOGI