Open Data: Louisville Courier-Journal and Kentucky Police

by yourmapper on May 27, 2009

Allowing the public and news organizations unfettered access to federal, state, and local governments’ non-private data is essential.  One good way to do this is to make the data available online, thus reducing the agency’s costs trying to manually fill individual freedom of information act requests.  However, this solution is not without its caveats, as the Kentucky State Police learned recently.  


The KY Police have their sex offender registry available online, and it is searchable, browsable, and constantly updated (but no map version).  The Louisville Courier Journal newspaper (C-J) tried to get a data dump of the police’s sex offender registry, so they could examine and repurpose the data.  And since they are a news organization like Your Mapper, they were allowed to request this with minimal fees.

But over the course of the following months, it came out that the system the police were using to maintain the data was closed.  It was a third party solution, and they were not able to get the data they were putting into it back out.  Likely, the combination of time, cost, and effort let them to pick a product they were pitched, and they didn’t consider all the implications of the decision until they implemented it.  Then they were stuck.

The paper went to the state Attorney General’s office who ruled in their favor, but the police appealed the decision, dragging out the process.  Along the way, the state police proposed a few alternatives, including a $50,000 fee to open up their FTP site to the C-J.  In the end, the Attorney General’s ruling was upheld, and the C-J got their data, and the state police were out even more taxpayer money since they have to pay the C-J’s legal fees.

There are a few lessons here.  One is that news organizations and the public want and need access to government data, and it should be a priority to make it available. Another is that even though it’s a difficult decision to pick a third party technology to help get your data to the public, a key factor should be that you remain in control of your own data and you can not only get the data out when you need it, but should still expect requests like this.  Also, it would behoove agencies to use open standards through data formats like CSV, RSS, KML, XOMGL, XML, etc,  for their entire database, and make these available directly on the website as well, thus circumventing situations like this.

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