Open Data and the Power of Engagement

Governments don’t need to figure out open data on their own.

by / March 16, 2015

As the open data movement nears the 10-year mark, where does it go from here? Some would like to see open data become more open and inclusive — and less government-centric.

As this issue went to press, a diverse group of elected officials, policymakers, CIOs and innovation officers met in Louisville, Ky., for an e.Republic conference on government performance and innovation. When the talk turned to open data, the consensus was that governments need to look beyond their own walls to make it more meaningful.

“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 and others say context is one key to taking open data to the next level. Governments are putting lots of raw data online, but they’re not helping consumers make sense of the information. Providing some perspective would help. For instance, 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.

Fortunately, governments don’t need to figure out open data on their own. Outside innovators and other partners can help improve data presentation if agencies are willing to engage with them, Sastokas said.

Or maybe governments don’t need to run the open data process at all.

“People thought the open data conversation stopped at government, which is ridiculous,” said Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation for Louisville. “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.”

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

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

Although states and localities have worked hard to make their data more accessible than ever before, the job isn’t done. In fact, in terms of making open data truly valuable, it’s just beginning. And governments will need to engage community partners for help.

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.