Arkansas needs an open data plan. The Arkansas General Assembly and city and county governments across the state should introduce comprehensive legislation covering what data should be made public, how it will be delivered and how it will become interwoven with existing policy. The Sunlight Foundation offers 32 suggestions for drafting open data policy. One of Sunlight's suggestions — creating an inventory of all information holdings — would make a good starting place. Government tech officers, or newly created transparency advisory committees, should identify what's easily available and what's high value and work until they meet in the middle.
Tranparency.Arkansas.gov needs an update. In July 2012, Arkansas joined a majority of states in providing checkbook-level details of state expenditures and revenues. It's a powerful resource, but it needs to be made significantly more user friendly. For example, visitors can't search the data with a single query. Payments to vendors are included; but to search for actual contracts, you have to go to another state site that's not linked from the transparency site. As much as it might pain them, state officials should look to Texas' transparency portal for inspiration. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Texas' site a 96, the highest score in its report "Following the Money 2013: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data." Arkansas received a 69.
The state needs one data portal. "To me, everybody just thinks of government as government and they really don't differentiate between city, county, state and federal," Arkansas Chief Technology Officer Claire Bailey told the Times. "So we've got to work together, those of us in public service, to make it as easy as possible for people to find information." Hear, hear. Transparency.Arkansas.gov should be the place Arkansans go to learn about how their state operates and where developers go to get datasets and APIs. As more local data become available, it and relevant federal data should be included.
The state should consolidate its information technology infrastructure. Arkansas is one of the few states in the country without one IT department providing support for all state agencies, according to Bailey, who also serves as director of the state Department of Information Systems (DIS). Bailey understands where government needs to move on the web. The state portal, Arkansas.gov, employs responsive design (i.e. it's mobile friendly) and geo-locating features. It's undoubtedly the most user-friendly website in Arkansas government. She also gets the value of open data. "Big data and transparency not only generates introspection into government, it also provides a catalyst for emerging enterprises that can look and think differently about data and put that to use for economic development," she told the Times. As CTO, her job is to consider state tech policy from a macro level and suggest ways to improve. But that's a tall order when many state agencies have their own IT groups and visions. A consolidated system would allow for easier and quicker implementation of open data policy.
The state Senate should livestream its proceedings. Legislative watchers know well the Senate's pitiful reluctance to embrace transparency. In 2011, the House began broadcasting live on the Internet from its chamber and four committee rooms. A big chunk of its initial $400,000 setup fee went to build a sophisticated control room. House spokespeople are too decorous to say so, but the current control room would almost certainly support livestreaming the Senate with minimal upgrades. The cost to outfit House committee rooms ran $65,000 a pop. So cost isn't a reason for the Senate not to join their colleagues. An even worse excuse? Grandstanding. Current Senate leader Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville) has often said he doesn't support the move because he's afraid his colleagues will suddenly start preening for the camera. Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), who's in line to take Lamoureux's place, made a similarly lame argument in an interview with the Times. "There's a lot of tradition and some apprehension [cameras] would change it. There's a lot of camaraderie. ... There's not a lot of grandstanding in the Senate. There's not a lot of political posturing on the bills. It's more about the facts surrounding the bills." Those of us who are able to show up at the Capitol know that lawmakers do not need cameras in the room to grandstand. Dismang added that he'd never gotten a request from a constituent. That misses the point: Most people won't watch gavel-to-gavel coverage, of course, but if a few motivated citizens have access, they can spread the word, leading to a more informed and engaged citizenry. It's 2014. Access to the government of the people should not be limited to Arkansans able to go to the Capitol in Little Rock in the middle of the working day.