OpenDataSoft recently announced the launch of Open Data America, an initiative to release data portals for more than 500 cities across the United States.
The company began building data portals in Europe five years ago and claims a customer base of about 120 government entities there. It is offering the new product free to U.S. cities, in the hope that municipal authorities will opt to upgrade to a premium version.
“It is a way to target midsize cities between 60,000 to 370,000 inhabitants,” said COO and co-founder Franck Carassus. “We grabbed open data from federal government, from census, anything we found interesting and exciting, in order to show how data products could help these cities with decision-making. We wanted to prove that we could use public data to do this.”
The San Angelo, Texas, portal is a typical example of the Open Data America offering. It displays the top private-sector industries, road safety information and key demographics. A dashboard lets visitors drill down into the economy, air quality and other key metrics. The data itself can be exported and customized.
Cities can upgrade to a more fully functional, highly customizable portal for between $12,000 and $200,000 a year depending on the volume of data and the breadth of services.
The company has teamed with Amazon Web Services (AWS) on the back end in an effort to simplify the adoption of a data portal.
“The idea is to demonstrate that we can have a turnkey solution for midsized cities. If they want to buy it and upgrade, they just need to click on the AWS Marketplace and be up and running in a matter of days or even hours,” Carassus said. “By teaming with AWS, there is no additional processing, it’s something that is easy to do.”
OpenDataSoft is not alone in this space. ClearGov has taken a similar approach, building some 36,000 municipal data portals based on public data. Viewed side by side, the two companies’ Greenville, N.C., portals seem to tread much the same ground, with the chief difference being that OpenDataSoft appears to make the core data more readily available.
“If you are a mid-sized city and you want to access the data, you can do that inside the platform,” Carassus said. “In the upgraded version, you can add your own data sets with your own look and feel.”
In Chapel Hill, N.C., CIO Scott Clark led the town in its launch of a custom OpenDataSoft portal in January 2016. He likes the idea of a free introductory portal, but says city officials need to be meticulous about the sourcing of data.
“Even if it’s free, you want it to be accurate, so you are not in a position of having to defend those numbers,” he said.
In the case of Open Data America, “they are using population, unemployment rates, things you could pull from state and national databases with a fairly high degree of reliability,” he said. “It seems to provide a pretty good base of open data information. I looked at the numbers for a couple of towns that I am familiar with, and it all looked reasonable.”
Among cities already utilizing OpenDataSoft portals, Carassus has seen a range of implementations.
“The easiest and most obvious is to use it for transparency: I need to build trust with my citizens, from police crime reports to restaurant inspections to the budget. Those are obvious cases for an open data portal, but it is not enough,” he said.
In the bigger picture, “the idea is to get data from different sources and take some action about it. For example, if you can match data coming from the police department to data on transportation, if you can mix the data about traffic with the police incident reports on car accidents, then you begin to really learn something valuable,” he said.
Even as cities explore such possibilities, many are faced with challenges. As much as they would like to open up the data, the information isn’t always readily available.
“For U.S. cities there is a challenge around having access to external data,” Carassus said. “For example, look at transportation or utilities. Sharing data with your utility or your waste management company is not obvious yet, where in Europe this has always been the case. If you want to do business with the city of Paris, you as a company need to commit to data sharing. We don’t see that in the U.S. yet, but we are starting to see more RFPs with a data sharing addendum.”
Looking ahead, Carassus predicts the current uptick in municipal data portals will come into full flower when cities begin to incorporate Internet of Things data into their visualizations. With the rise of affordable, effective sensors, he said, cities will look to take their present portals up a notch.
“Cities will look at the data that is coming from those sensors, the air quality sensors and the noise measures, and they will begin to build smart cities around that open data,” he said. “We see a big move in that direction.”
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.