A nonprofit gov tech group has created an international open data standards directory, aspiring to give cities a singular resource for guidance on formatting data they release to the public.
The group is GovEx, also known as the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University. Andrew Nicklin, GovEx director of data practices, said he was driven to work on it in part by challenges he saw when he helped build New York City’s open data platform in the early 2010s. A question he often struggled with then was what the best way was to publish data in order to make it relevant and usable by the largest number of people.
“The answer, to my mind, meant standards,” Nicklin said. “And there weren’t a whole lot out there.”
That deficit of information about government open data standards is what the directory seeks to remedy. The nature of municipal data is nuanced and diverse, and the format in which it is released often varies depending on subject matter. In other words, a format that works well for public safety data is not necessarily the same that works for info about building permits, transit or budgets. Not having a coordinated and agreed-upon resource to identify the best standards for these different types of info, Nicklin said, creates problems.
One such problem is that it can be time-consuming and challenging for city government data workers to research and identify ideal formats for data. Another is that the lack of info leads to discord between different jurisdictions, meaning one city might format a data set about economic development in an entirely different way than another, making collaboration and comparisons problematic.
What the directory does is provide a list of standards that are in use within municipal governments, as well as an evaluation based on how frequent that use is, whether the format is machine-readable, and whether users have to pay to license it, among other factors.
The directory currently contains 60 standards, some of which are in Spanish, and those involved with the project say they hope to expand their efforts to include more languages. There is also a crowdsourcing component to the directory, in that users are encouraged to make additions and updates.
Another collaborator in the creation of this project is GeoThink, which is a part of McGill University’s Department of Geography. The genesis of the work can, in part, be traced back to McGill. Rachel Bloom, an undergraduate student at the school, was working on a thesis about the different city government data standards, and she came up with a methodology to measure them. Bloom’s early work involved about 20 data standards. With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and a partnership with the associated What Works Cities initiative, GovEx is continuing to expand the directory. Nicklin said the goal is to keep adding additional sets to make it as valuable a resource as possible for city governments around the world.
“We’ve got this thing we think doesn’t exist: A place for government data leaders to identify how they want to release data to the public,” Nicklin said. “We have a larger future vision for this.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.