Open records squabble blooms over Austin Music Census data

By Lilly Rockwell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Oct. 5, 2015

For Texas State University professor Cindy Royal, the Austin Music Census data was like Christmas came early.

A city-hired consultant had collected surveys from nearly 4,000 people in Austin’s music industry, with data ranging from musicians’ revenue sources to answers on broader questions about the challenges facing the local music scene.

Royal, who teaches a class in the journalism program at Texas State on computer coding and data skills, wanted to use the survey data in her class. So she filed an open records request in August with the city of Austin, clarifying that she did not want personally identifying information and was seeking the raw quantitative data.

In the ensuing month and a half, that request has turned into a legal squabble over whether the data should be publicly available.

The company that collected the data, Titan Music Group, and its attorney insist the raw data is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Titan Music Group President Nikki Rowling said there was “clear agreement” between her company, which received $45,000 for the study, and the city that the census data would not be owned by the city and would stay with Titan.

Indeed, an Aug. 27 email from Mona Sanchez, who works in the city’s Economic Development Department, told Royal that “due to privacy and security concerns” about information in the raw data, the department “specifically requested that the city of Austin not receive or own any of that data in any aspect.”

Rowling said releasing the data would violate the confidentiality she promised to the musicians and music industry workers who filled out the survey, which asked personal questions about, for instance, personal income and business revenue.

“So much detailed data was elicited in the census that anonymity would be impossible given Austin’s close-knit music community,” Rowling said in a written statement. “Releasing the raw data online could turn the entire process into an Internet parlor game of who is who.”

The American-Statesman also requested the data in September and has not received it.

Several musicians who reached out to the Statesman on Monday at Rowling’s behest said they were concerned about the survey data being released.

Dave Madden, an Austin-based keyboardist and songwriter, said musicians felt comfortable disclosing information about their personal finances because they were assured it was being kept confidential. Even if names and other identifying information were stripped out, Madden said for some people with unusual jobs or high income levels, it would be easy to match names with financial data.

But Royal says she doesn’t plan on publishing the data “line by line” and instead would aggregate the data. She said there are new ways to analyze the data, such as looking at answers sorted by genre of music, or looking at how the number of shows a band plays per month affects income. Royal also said there is value in essentially “fact-checking” Rowling’s data and conclusions.

“The public is entitled to this data, it’s the only way we can verify what’s in the report,” Royal said, adding that she had “no reason to believe” it wasn’t correct.

For now, the city’s legal department is siding with Royal. In a Sept. 17 letter to Titan Music Group, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link wrote that information produced by the study is subject to the Texas Public Information Act. “Please promptly provide that information to the city,” Link wrote.

In an email to the city’s law department last week, Royal noted that the contract specifically requires Titan Music Group to provide the city a comma-separated values data set, or CSV, of “all survey results, including contact information.” But a Sept. 30 letter from Rowling’s attorney to the city says the only CSV file Titan was required to submit was an Austin music business directory that was unrelated to the survey results.

Royal said the open records dispute has become a “teachable moment” for her students on the challenges of public information requests. She’s mulling over next steps, including reaching out to the Texas attorney general’s office, which oversees enforcement of the Texas Public Information Act.