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Boston Mayor Walsh announces new open data policy for public access

In an effort to increase transparency in the city’s government, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh signed an executive order Monday to make city data, such as health inspections and crime statistics, open to the public through websites and smartphone applications.

The new Open Data Policy requires certain data be made public, while ensuring the government has the ability to exercise discretion and ensure that no private information be released. Walsh’s executive order said the new policy will enhance “public participating” and “effective government” in the City of Boston.

“There is a tremendous amount of value in open data,” said Justin Holmes, Walsh’s interim chief information officer. “Boston is among many cities looking to make their data open and available to the public. Part of our overall effort is to make government service more accessible and more accountable.”

The city currently has 341 datasets that are open to the public, as well as a smartphone application, called Citizens Connect, which allows anyone in Boston to file reports or make complaints, Holmes said.

“Since Citizens Connect began, we’ve been very open and proactive,” he said. “Citizens Connect and the Open Data Policy are two separate tracks, but what we will be doing soon is sharing more data through the Citizens Connect, which is in parallel to the mayor’s commitment to transparency and openness.”

Confident and classified information, such as education records and health records, will remain protected through the Protected Data Policy, giving the Chief Information Officer the power to regulate the privatization of these files.

Walsh is not the only Boston politician to express a need for city data to be publicized. City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu proposed an “open data ordinance” Monday morning, which she deemed a necessity during her campaign in what she called “Wu’s 50 Ideas for Boston Families,” a Monday press release said.

“Government today should center on making data-driven decisions and inviting in the public to collaborate around new ideas and solutions,” Wu said in the release. “In addition to promoting open government, making information available to the fullest extent possible will help leverage Boston’s energy and talent for civic innovation.”

Wu’s ordinance said its purpose is to make the city more transparent while remaining within the boundaries of the law, to empower the citizens “through the democratization of information” and to create economic and social benefits through accessibility.

“This would allow the public to get that data and, if they are so inclined, put that info to good use to develop innovation,” said Julia Leja, director of the Michelle Wu Committee. “We want to make that info available to be useful. While Councilor Wu and Mayor Walsh did work independent of each other, both have demonstrated a commitment to open data.”

Matt Carroll, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Civic Media, said the government must adapt to society’s needs as technology changes various functions in the city.

“In the old days, everything was kept on paper, and it was very difficult to get this information out, but now there is no excuse not to get this information available,” he said. “There is so much more data out there, and it is so much more important to be transparent with these things. The more it is made available, the more efficient the government will be.”

Several residents said the new access to information would be beneficial to anyone who is interested in accessing the documents and files behind the functions in the city.

“I would like to know what type of area I’m living in, what people surround me and the quality of food I am eating,” Sarah Davis, 28, of West Roxbury. “It shows that health, safety, [and other things] are a top priority.”

Stephanie Mallis, 68, of Back Bay, said the new policy will strengthen Boston’s commitment to transparency between its government and its people.

“It’s better to be open and honest about things,” she said. “It’s a way to show that Boston is transparent, and Boston has a pretty good reputation [with that].”

Brenda Lee Hernandez, 26, of Dorchester, said the Open Data Policy would benefit the community, as long as it does not intrude on anyone’s privacy.

“We need to stay updated so that we can take precautions,” she said. “Especially me, I’m always busy working so it would be nice to have a smartphone app or a website that I can look to, but only as long as it has nothing to do with anyone’s private information.”

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