Open data, especially open government data, is a tremendous resource that is as yet largely untapped. Many individuals and organisations collect a broad range of different types of data in order to perform their tasks. Government is particularly significant in this respect, both because of the quantity and centrality of the data it collects, but also because most of that government data is public data by law, and therefore could be made open and made available for others to use. Why is that of interest?
Here are three reasons why publishing open data is important for local governments.
First, releasing data in open formats can dramatically reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to respond to open record / FOIL requests. For some government agencies, responding to these requests takes a non-trivial amount of time – particularly if they are not done in a coordinated fashion. I’ve witnessed agencies first hand manually work through open records requests for the exact same data over and over and over. This makes little sense, especially if the data has already been deemed public and suitable for release. Publishing frequently requested data in an open format allows people to self serve, and preserves internal staff time for more pressing needs.
In addition, if your city, county or state government only maintains data publicly as part of a web document or web site there is a good chance it is being scraped. This tends to happen much more frequently than most government employees think. Scraping can cause undue burden on your IT infrastructure and undue stress on your IT staff that may be tasked with trying to troubleshoot issues caused by scrapers gone wild.
Second, when governments release data it can foster the creation of new data uses, visualizations and software applications. The potential for app development is greatly increased when there are standards that different governments can jointly adopt – some good examples are transit data (GTFS), citizen service requests (Open311), building permits (BLDS), and many others.
Governments that release open data can leverage both their local developer community and the efforts of developers elsewhere to bring useful apps to their citizens.
Finally, governments that share open data with outside consumers lay the foundation for a different, equally important, kind of sharing – sharing data across government agencies.
Cities are notoriously complex and stovepiped. For example, in Philadelphia the department that grants property tax exemptions is different than the one that collect property tax payments. What if the city could condition the granting of exemptions on whether a property owner was current on their tax payments? Sounds simple, yet because of bureaucratic complexity it often is not.
In many places city and county government work closely together on a similar issue, or the responsibility for a service may reside with many local governments and be aggregated at the county or state level. In each of these cases, there are opportunities for governments to discover and easily use data from other governments for their own purposes.
Open data programs make data discoverable – they obviate the need for special relationships or political clout to obtain data. Anyone and everyone can see what data is available for use, so few resources are spent hunting around for data and connecting with data owners.
Open data programs make data more usable – they create incentives for governments to describe their data for people that are not domain experts, and to build services for easier and more efficient use of data.
Open data programs can help foster a “culture of sharing” within government. As noted in a 2013 data analytics report from the City of New York – Aggregating cross-agency data is often first a political, legal, and cultural discussion. Whether created by statute, executive order or some other vehicle, open data directives send a clear message to the bureaucracy that data sharing is not only beneficial, but expected.
Any government that wants to start down this road will quickly start to see the benefits.
They just have to get started.