Is Open Data Running Out of Steam?

City experts say better community partnerships could reinvigorate "check box" transparency.

by / February 13, 2015
Oakland, Calif., CIO Bryan Sastokas says context is one key to making data more valuable. e.Republic/David Kidd

City open data and transparency efforts often miss the mark because municipal leaders fail to connect with community members who could help them make the information richer and more relevant, a panel of CIOs and innovation officers said Thursday, Feb. 12.

Speaking at an e.Republic conference on government performance and innovation in Louisville, Ky., panelists were critical of progress being made by municipal open data initiatives. Although cities across the nation have labored to create open data sites and post all sorts of raw data online, they haven’t worked hard enough at making the information valuable to citizens.

“I have almost a negative view of open data,” said Bryan Sastokas, CIO of Oakland, Calif. “I think cities don’t give it the right attention. It’s become kind of a check box.”

Sastokas said context is one key to making data more valuable. For instance, he said, detailed water usage data doesn’t mean much to the average utility customer, but knowing that you’re using more water than 80 percent of your neighbors does.

Ideas for making data more useful don’t need to come from government alone, he added. Outside innovators and other community partners often want to help improve data presentation if agencies are willing to engage with them.

Austin, Texas, CIO Steve Elkins added that governments need to put more effort into mixing city, county and state data in ways that provide new insights.

And Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation for Louisville, Ky., said maybe government agencies don’t need to run the open data process at all.

“People thought the open data conversation stopped at government, which is ridiculous,” he said. “We need to work with citizens or groups that will provide data for us. We don’t need to be the owner or arbiter of open data.”

This is particularly true as development of the Internet of Things drives deployment of ubiquitous sensor networks, which aren’t necessarily government owned and are capable of providing new information on everything from traffic flow to weather patterns, Smith said. There’s an opportunity for smart partnerships that give cities access to this data without having to deploy the infrastructure themselves.

Ultimately non-profits or other civic-focused third parties may be willing to take over operation of open data portals that are currently run by cities -- and mix in new types of information, context and relevance.       

“We’ve totally missed it. Open data isn’t good on its own; it’s how it’s used,” Smith said. “The goal is to improve people’s lives.”

Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.