Austin Music Census data to remain private

By Kevin Curtin
Austin Chronicle
Originally published Feb. 1, 2016

A drawn-out open records dispute over results from last year’s Austin Music Census has come to a conclusion as Texas’ Attorney General ruled that Titan Music Group, who the city contracted to conduct the survey, isn’t required to turn over the raw data to parties making public information filings.

Cindy Royal, a Texas State University professor, initially filed a public information request for the Census data in August. She hoped to apply it to projects in a Coding and Data Skills for Communicators course she teaches.

“We look at data in different ways and create interactive presentations that can be done on the web,” Royal explained last fall. “That’s driven by a grant I got from the Knight Foundation to tell data-driven stories about music in the community. Last year, a student did a project on loud music noise complaints by using the City of Austin’s 311 data.”

Royal claims the quantitative data, of which the 231-page assessment of Austin’s commercial music economy was based on, was ripe for further academic analysis.

“[Titan] did a comprehensive job in showing a lot of different ways that you could view the extensive data they collected, but by no means did they show every way that you can slice and dice that data,” she said. “For example, if we wanted to look at male versus female attitudes on a lot of those questions in the study, we can’t really do that.”

Titan’s Nikki Rowling refused to release the participants’ testimony, citing privacy concerns for its 4,000 respondents, who were assured their information and opinions would be kept private. She also contended that, as a third-party consultant, she wouldn’t have to turn over the materials unless someone successfully sues her.

Last fall, official requests for the Census data, from Royal and, separately, Christian McDonald on behalf of the Austin-American Statesman, went up the chain of command from the city to the state, the latter of which remains tasked with enforcing the Public Information Act. In October, Austin Assistant City Attorney Elaine Nicholson wrote to State Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office stating that the confidential survey should qualify for privacy exemption because it includes respondents’ financial and medical information. Titan followed up with an extensive letter from their attorney arguing that the Census results shouldn’t be considered public information because of similar precedents of protecting third-party data collections.

The subsequent ruling, authored by State Assistant Attorney General Ramsey Abarca on December 17, found that Titan would not be required to turn over the Census data to Royal, the Statesman, or any other party. Justification for the decision was proprietary exemption 552.104, which exempts the disclosure of “information that, if released, would give advantage to a competitor or bidder.”

“My opinion is that the Attorney General didn’t want to set a precedent for the city of Austin that would bind them into all kinds of privacy complications and questions, but they saw that information clearly needed to be withheld, so they cited something that would be very difficult for anyone to litigate against and was practical for them to do,” offers Rowling.

Following the decision, the period in which Royal or McDonald could file suit in protest has now passed. Rowing says she’s pleased the issue is now put to bed.

“It was a colossally difficult situation to be put in and I’m really glad that the people who participated in the Census can rest easy,” she sighed. “We wouldn’t be where we are without the kind of response we had, and this isn’t an academic exercise. This was about people’s lives and it’s going to people who are trying to make really big decisions about resources to support that.”