When a new flood of raw data comes pouring out of the city, as it soon will under a bill Mayor Bloomberg signed Wednesday, how can journalists and citizen activists use it to better understand government operations? How will they sift through the mounds of information that will be posted in a central online portal to find the wheat in the chaff? What new programs might software developers be able to create with the data?
These were just some of the questions addressed by a panel at Columbia University on Tuesday, in a discussion sponsored by the Queens Chronicle’s partners at The New York World, as well as the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
The panelists included open government activists and a New York Times columnist, while City Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), the bill’s prime sponsor, also spoke and took questions from the audience of about 80 people. More queries were submitted online.
The new law will further the goal of opening government data to the public beyond the access afforded by the Freedom of Information Law, panelist John Kaehny of the Reinventing Albany organization noted, because while FOIL guarantees access to documents that there is no valid reason to keep secret, it does not apply to pure information. The new city law, Intro. 29-A, will do that as agencies comply with its requirements over time.
But one key concern for the panelists is how people will be able to find useful information in the stream of data to come.
“If you have the Mississippi River coming at you, it’s hard to find the barge you want,” said Michael Powell, The Times’ Gotham columnist, who called 29-A a “terrific bill” regardless.
“I guess what I worry about is whether in this great river of data we have time to impose a narrative on it, and to impose an interesting narrative on it,” Powell said.
That, he said, is the key to being able to “interrogate” and understand the data, and to produce from it something that is useful.
Powell noted that although the Bloomberg administration promises a wealth of information to come, it is notorious for defying the FOIL, especially when it comes to requests for information made to the education and police departments.
The New York World, published by Columbia Journalism School, produces government accountability journalism online and, in Queens, in the Chronicle.