Crain's New York City 's Transparency Commission Quietly Resurfaces by Thornton McEnery

Crain's New York
Crain's New York
City 's Transparency Commission Quietly Resurfaces
Thornton McEnery
12/19/2014

 

City government's most obscure commission assembled for the third time in its 25-year history Thursday. A data-transparency panel, it gathered on less than two days' notice, but plans on getting together more often.

Public Advocate Letitia James convened the Commission on Public Information and Communication for the first time since her predecessor Bill de Blasio did in May 2012. All but one member of the incomplete committee was new to COPIC, making it a fresh start for the body, which was written into the City Charter in 1989 to improve dissemination of public data.

Chaired by Ms. James and made up of members including Manhattan City Councilman Ben Kallos (who was elected Wednesday afternoon by his colleagues to serve on the committee), the city'snewly named chief analytics officer, Amen Ra Mashariki, and representatives from city agencies such as the Department of Records and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, COPIC's re-entry into the public was made cautiously.

Ms. James opened the meeting by enumerating the panel's possibilities, stressing its role of "balancing between privacy and the public’s right to know" and pointing to examples like how it can push for more searchable data on city websites and the future application of body cameras worn by police officers.

While the vast majority of the 25-minute meeting was spent on introducing new members like Mr. Mashariki—who pointed to the very existence of his job as proof that open data is a concept near and dear to City Hall's heart—Ms. James made one statement of note, saying that she will ask the mayor, Mr. de Blasio, to fund a full-time staff for COPIC.

Even though the Charter calls for COPIC to have a full-time director, getting public funds for one might prove difficult for Ms. James, especially considering that Mr. de Blasio convened the body just once during his four years as public advocate.

In lieu of having a full-time leader, Ms. James called on the commission to appoint her deputy counsel Umair Khan COPIC's interim director. That motion, which was quickly carried, was the only business done.

One factor that contributed to the abbreviated length of the meeting was that Silicon Alley evangelist Andrew Rasiej was late and missed his chance to testify. The one group that did appear was Citizens Union, which enumerated a long list of ideas to increase transparency in the city's data.

An ironic demand by the Citizens Union was for more advance notice of COPIC meetings. Ms. James had only announced her intention to assemble the commission on Tuesday afternoon. Ms. James responded to the good-government group's request by saying the next COPIC meeting would be "sometime in March."

Issue: 
Good Government
Technology