Understanding the Super-Boring But Super-Important New City Data Ordinance

Scott Lucas | March 18, 2014 | Story Politics

With the introduction today of a new bill that would require San Francisco to make all of its legislation available in machine-readable formats, Supervisor Mark Farrell continues his one man war against the hard-working political journalists of San Francisco. If all this information gets too transparent, what happens to Matier and Ross?

To be fair, having the city follow the lead of the House of Representatives in making its legislative data—like bill numbers, sponsors, and text as well as metadata like authorship, file numbers, and scheduling—housed in XML formatting would be another step towards a more open and transparent city government. It's a set of policy changes that, like we've said before, sounds a little boring—but could have massive consequences.

Like what Farrell envisions as a new system for receiving comments on bills. Currently, the Board takes input through emails, public hearings, and old-fashioned paper snail mail. It's a bit cumbersome. "Personally I don’t find those mass emails that with one click of a button let someone from Arkansas flood our inboxes particularly useful," said Farrell. "The input should be of a higher quality."

So how about, for instance, leaving comments directly on the text of a bill online? Farrell thinks that could be done relatively easily. "Let's say I introduce a piece of legislation. Individuals can go to a website and on any line item, any section, could leave specific comments," he said. "They could say hey you forgot x, y, and z or talk about broader themes. Then those comments will be filtered back to me."

Making the city's legislative metadata machine-readable could have broader implications as well. According to Seamus Kraft, executive director on the OpenGov Foundation, "It’s very hard to know what your legislator is actually doing. If you’re a reporter on the Hill you can get a sense, but if you’re a citizen, not so much. This would be a massive accountability mechanism." That could affect the way that citizens vote.

It's also an approach that could have larger reverberations past the city's boundaries, said Rebecca Williams, municipal policy analyst with the Sunlight Foundation. "Imagine if hundreds of cities were to do it. Then it would be easy to search and compare, let's say, dog walking laws in each city. It’s not easy to do that now." Comparing dog walking laws across hundreds of municipalities seems pretty mundane—but how about comparing education policies when deciding where to move to? Or, if you're an elected official, when deciding what kind of tax policy to enact?

All of this is still in the medium-term future, but it's a set of ideas that are getting closer to practice quickly, and one that has the potential to overhaul the way that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors does its business. "We want to enable participation for people," said Farrell, "who are not always able to come to hearings at 2 in the afternoon."

Which, let's face, can be pretty boring all on its own.

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