Oakland County, Mich.'s Open Data Portal Renders Data as a Citizen Service

The new system brings together 92 databases, giving users free access to raw data, as well as presenting them with 17 maps highlighting different geospatial features across this county of 1.2 million people.

by / November 29, 2016
Oakland County, Mich.

Tech-savvy Oakland County, Mich., got an early jump on the data game. It started putting geospatial information online in 1998 and in subsequent years did a brisk business selling the data.

Though others have sought to replicate this strategy, it ultimately wasn't a successful one. The county gleaned $4,000 a year in data sales, but “we were spending more money gathering the data than we were ever taking in,” said Deputy County Executive and CIO Phil Bertolini. “Because these were individual requests, nothing was ever current. Every time someone wanted data, we would have to gather the most recent data sets.”

This one-off approach was too time-consuming. Worse, it kept county data in the hands of a paying few, rather than making it more widely accessible. IT leaders came to favor the notion of a more open system, one that made vast swathes of data readily available to all comers. In November, the county launched its new open data portal, Access Oakland.

The new system brings together 92 databases, giving users free access to raw data, as well as presenting them with 17 maps highlighting different geospatial features across this county of 1.2 million people.

A map-of-the-month feature highlights local amenities. There’s a cider mill map and a Christmas tree map, as well as maps for farmer’s markets, trails and local “dark skies” — minimally populated places ideal for stargazing.

“The general public doesn’t necessarily have an understanding of this data, so we want to show them examples, to give them ideas of how they could use it in their own applications,” said Tammi Shepherd, chief of application services for the Oakland county IT shop, which encompasses 162 full-timers and between 40 and 50 contractors.

The raw data is available for those who want to dig deeper. “If they like what they see and want to use it for different purposes, they can then scroll down to the bottom and download all the data that is associated with those maps,” Bertolini said.

Scrolling and clicking is a big improvement on the way this got done in the past, when users who bought data would wait a couple of days and receive a disc in the mail. “People were disappointed to be getting this disc. They didn’t quite know what to do with it, and they also wanted to mash it together with multiple sources, which wasn’t possible,” Bertolini said. “We thought a more open data portal would be a better way to provide that information.”

If the old system made things complicated for the end user, the same could be said within the county’s IT shop, where selling geospatial data created a degree of bureaucratic complexity.

“Every time someone wanted data we had a decision matrix: Should they get the data for free? Are they a government agency, are they a university? If you are a private business, will we sell you the data, and if so, who is going to package it up and put it on a CD?” Shepherd said. “There was a lot of labor involved in administering the policy and managing the data.”

Often this labor would be undermined when those who purchased the data turned around and resold it, effectively negating all the thoughtful vetting done by the county.

The launch of the new portal is not Oakland County’s first time taking a leading role in the realm of government technology. In 2012, it joined with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the National Association of Counties (NACo) to launch a national shared services computing initiative, providing services to the nation’s to more than 3,000 counties, boroughs and parishes.

Where that effort sought to bridge the IT gap between governmental entities, this new effort looks outward, rendering data as a citizen service. To that end, the new portal makes everything transparent. “They can mash together different geospatial layers either with this data or with other people’s free data stores, and pull it together to make better-informed decisions,” Shepherd said.

The IT team reports spending 150 hours developing policy for the portal, and between 1,000 and 1,100 hours building the mechanics of the portal, including creating maps and loading data.

All that effort should serve not just to disseminate information, but to build important bonds. “We really become part of a community when we put our data out there,” Shepherd said. “It helps within our community, and it also helps people outside of Oakland County to understand us better.”

Those outsiders are a key audience, especially those business leaders who may be eyeing the county as a potential base of operations. “We know there are people who make decisions about locating here based on information they find on the Web,” Bertolini said. “From an economic development perspective, most people’s first contact with the community is online. That is a daunting challenge for government.”

The open data portal aims to respond to that challenge. With the first data sets in place, the IT team now has developed a “road show” that it is taking around to leaders in county government, trying to bring additional information into the public arena. “Now we have a model,” Bertolini said. “We have something we can take to the departments and divisions to show them: This is what we have, now what else can we do with it?”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.