Harris County Commissioners Court will be making data more accessible to the public in an effort to be more transparent, county officials said, thanks to a new Open Data Policy adopted at commissioners court on Dec. 14.
Parts of the new policy are already in the works, County Administrator David Berry said, including efforts to collect public data sets and put them in one place online in a format that is easy for members of the public to access and download. This site will be dubbed the Open Data Portal under the county’s new policy, according to the county administrator’s office, and cost about $43,000.
“One of the things that the open data policy really is looking to do is [take] information that already would otherwise be available through the Public Information Act and make it available to the general public without having to ask for it,” First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said.
Berry did not specify how long this will take to complete, but said the plan is to prioritize requests they hear the most.
“Things like public safety, like board operations—I think they would be near the top of the list,” Berry said.
As part of the county’s new open data policy, an Open Data Team will be created sometime during late 2021 or early 2022. The team will consist of four team members initially, and they will bring their first report to commissioners court 180 days after a team leader is found.
The new policy will be furthering efforts the county has already made, Aiyer said, as prior to 2019, getting an agenda for the Harris County Commissioners Court was difficult.
“So this is light-years of movement in the right direction, to try to provide the kinds of information the public and the media and various organizations have always wanted,” Aiyer added.
The county’s “process for open data governance,” has been undefined up to this point, according to the Dec. 14 commissioners court agenda. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the new policy, but not before Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis posed some questions about the county’s current process for making data public or available to commissioners.
The entity Ellis was asking about is the county’s Data Governance Committee, Aiyer said, and it currently comprises multiple entities including the District Attorney, District Clerk, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Harris County Universal Services.
“What could that committee keep from being public?” Ellis asked. “And under what authority?”
Berry’s office is working on finding the documentation for that committee, he said. The Data Governance Committee will continue to exist and work with the county attorney’s office and the county administrator’s office, Aiyer said.
“What they're trying to do [is] make a determination as to what can be publicly available, what can be publicly vetted through the owner of their individual record,” Aiyer said. “Obviously, public information is for the public. And so this is where it gets into a gray area—there are some really legitimate legal issues as to who controls and owns that individual data.”