Open Government Data Presents New Journalism Opportunities and Legal Challenges

It’s been a long time since a printed newspaper delivered to your doorstep or purchased on your way to work was the only way to get your daily dose of news. Now you can access those news publications on a laptop, smartphone, e-book reader, or—soon—on Apple’s tablet. In addition to an ever-expanding array of formats through which to read the same content, online publishing has enabled a whole range of new journalistic ventures from hyperlocal guides of stops along a light rail route to blogs focused on local government and politics. Even The New York Times has been making use of Twitter feeds and frequently updating blog posts in its coverage of the earthquake crisis in Haiti. Journalism is no longer only about storytelling; it can include a whole host of ways to inform the public.

Thus, it is strange that a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department was quoted saying, “[w]e provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” in explaining why the NYPD does not release a regularly updated data feed for software developers. That attitude may not prevail for long, as the federal government and various state and local governments are recognizing the value of independently developed apps using public data, and are making data available specifically for this purpose.

On December 8, 2009, the White House directed every federal agency to publish before the end of this month at least three collections of “high-value” government data on the Internet that had never been previously disclosed, with the objectives of “increas[ing] accountability, promot[ing] informed participation by the public, and creat[ing] economic opportunity.” On, the public can see a list of the participating agencies and access the catalog of available datasets online. In Massachusetts, the Open Data Initiative is in its pilot period after launching in December 2009, and data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation are available online. This has already resulted in an iPhone app using real-time bus location information that predicts when the next bus will arrive for users of the application. Similar efforts to make data available are underway in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York City.

Even New York City, home to the deputy commissioner quoted above, has sponsored a software application development contest using its publicly available data, with winners to be announced next week. The gallery of applications in New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. include many that put city data to work making residents’ lives easier: from mapping parking meter outages to public library catalog availability, to finding the closest parks and recreational facilities. At a minimum, those applications may be sleek presentations of public information that encourage utilization of community resources and reinforce communities. But those and other applications have the potential to transform government data into tangible, accessible reporting that start to look like, and serve the same functions as, conventional journalism. For instance, there are interactive maps and reports on restaurant inspection results, maps of districts and precincts that summarize demographic characteristics, local public school profiles and comparison tables, self-updating maps showing aggregated crime data, as well as maps of historical election results by voting district.

In this context, journalism will be an evolving process of gathering and translating information, not just providing a narrative through storytelling, with the goal of informing the public. The title of “journalist” may apply equally to the geek at a computer crunching datasets as to the beat reporter. The public benefits of such endeavors are the same as that of traditional journalism: informing residents and voters about their neighborhoods, communities, and government while increasing government transparency and accountability. But even better, such journalism may be cheaper, decreasing the cost of investigative journalism.

Still, making data available is not the same as making data available without conditions. In making data available, governments have had to address legal issues. For example, Massachusetts will likely adopt what it calls the “6 no’s” which will apply to government-provided data: (1) no warranty or liability in providing the data; (2) no endorsement by the government, (3) no illegal use of the data; (4) no use of the system to damage hardware, software, or files; (5) no indemnification; and (6) no duty to continue or continue for free the provision of such data.

Developers using the data will do well to keep those terms in mind because these terms—and other, similar terms—present an array of legal issues:

  • Who owns the data that an application is using? If a third party provides the data, does the third party have contractual rights to limit the distribution of data?
  • Does the governmental body have a continuing obligation to provide the data that a given application is relying upon?
  • Could there be liability for violations of privacy rights when data is aggregated across a variety of sources in a particular application?
  •  Is there a risk of liability for defamation when an application publishes mistakes found in the government data source?
In the coming weeks, we’ll cover these and other legal topics specific to the challenge of using government data in software applications. And, by the way, if you’re a software developer using government data and have specific legal questions, our Online Media Legal Network can help connect you with a lawyer who’s savvy on FOIA, copyright law, and other areas of the law that could impact your project.

Photo "Newsboy. Little Fattie" courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

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