By Derek Dobies 

During Sunshine Week we reassert the need for government at all levels to hold themselves accountable to not only the language, but also the spirit, of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – one of Michigan’s sunshine laws.

Important, no doubt. And as public officials it’s our job to ensure that we nurture accountability and transparency to preserve the public trust in all of our actions.

But, as the 28-year-old vice mayor of Jackson, it’s in my nature to note how antiquated this law actually is: the Freedom of Information Act was passed 38 years ago in 1976 – almost a decade before I was born. It’s high time for some major reforms in the way we think about access to public information.

Expanding open data in government is one way to revolutionize this public necessity – in a more transparent and efficient way than current FOIA law.

Let me explain in a simple allegory: suppose we celebrate Sunshine Week by eating out at a government-run restaurant. They’re only open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday throughout Friday. There’s no menu, and we have only a vague idea of what food is available. It’ll likely take us multiple attempts at ordering until we find something they might have in the kitchen.

After placing our order, we’re informed they need to contact multiple chefs to assemble our dish and that we’ll have to come back in 10 business days to eat it. It may even cost extra then.

I bet you wouldn’t leave a tip. Me either.

If any restaurant operated like that, they’d be closed for business.

But that’s the way the current FOIA system is set up: citizens and media alike have restricted access, limited understanding of what information is available, and are delayed answers.

It’s premised on reactive disclosure: questions must be asked before answers are given. The manner of ordering and processing that information is inefficient and ineffective; it stifles open investigation and innovation.

You and I own that restaurant: the food is ours, the staff work for us, and we own the building. We shouldn’t have to ask for what’s ours in the first place. Emphasizing open data can change that paradigm.

Open data assumes proactive disclosure: releasing government data and information in real-time before it’s requested. In today’s world, that means posting it online so that, when we’re hungry for information, we’re able to walk into that metaphorical kitchen and grab whatever data we want to consume.

From employee salaries and budget appropriations by department, to aggregated reports on snow-plowing routes and pothole repair maps – all of it served with a few clicks of a mouse.

Government at all levels should take steps to produce open data portals that are findable, consumable, and trustworthy. Providing for a system that supports open data will create more trust in government, provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, and create jobs. Most importantly, open data empowers people to take ownership in their community: it gives them the tools they need to help identify problems, propose solutions, and engage as citizens in a 21st century world.

There’s hunger for more transparency and accountability in government. Open data should be on the menu.

 — Derek Dobies is the vice mayor of the City of Jackson and is leading a University of Michigan School of Information Citizen Interaction Design team in crafting a first-in-Michigan Open Data Policy to promote greater transparency in City Hall.