The Quiet Revolution: Open Data Is Transforming Citizen-Government Interaction

On May 9, the DATA Act became law. There were very few headlines, no Rose Garden press conference. But the bill with the nerdy name has the potential to revolutionize government.

by MAURY BLACKMAN, Accela / July 31, 2014

The public’s trust in government is at an all-time low. This is not breaking news.

But what if I told you that just this past May, President Obama signed into law a bill that passed Congress with unanimous support. A bill that could fundamentally transform the way citizens interact with their government. This legislation could also create an entirely new, trillion-dollar industry right here in the U.S. It could even save lives.

On May 9, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) became law. There were very few headlines, no Rose Garden press conference.

I imagine most of you have never heard of the DATA Act. The bill with the nerdy name has the potential to revolutionize government. It requires federal agencies to make their spending data available in standardized, publicly accessible formats. Supporters of the legislation included Tea Partiers and the most liberal Democrats. But the bill is only scratches the surface of what’s possible.

So What’s the Big Deal?

On his first day in office, President Obama signed a memorandum calling for a more open and transparent government. The president wrote, “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” This was followed by the creation of, a one-stop shop for all government data. The site does not just include financial data, but also a wealth of other information related to education, public safety, climate and much more — all available in open and machine-readable format. This has helped fuel an international movement.

Tech minded citizens are building civic apps to bring government into the digital age; reporters are now more able to connect the dots more easily, not to mention the billions of taxpayer dollars saved. And last year the president took us a step further. He signed an executive order making open government data the default option.

Cities and states have followed Washington’s lead with similar open data efforts on the local level. In San Francisco, the city’s Human Services Agency has partnered with Promptly; a text message notification service that alerts food stamp recipients (CalFresh) when they are at risk of being disenrolled from the program. This service is incredibly beneficial, because most do not realize any change in status, until they are in the grocery store checkout line, trying to buy food for their family.

Other products and services created using open data do more than just provide an added convenience—they actually have the potential to save lives. The PulsePoint mobile app sends text messages to citizens trained in CPR when someone in walking distance is experiencing a medical emergency that may require CPR. The app is currently available in almost 600 cities in 18 states, which is great. But shouldn’t a product this valuable be available to every city and state in the country?

Cities & States Leading on Open Data

In 2009, San Francisco opened up its government data without spending a dime. It started with a few datasets and, then an executive order signed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. Following this order, the city’s board of supervisors passed legislation that ensured city data would be accessible regardless of who is in the mayor’s office. The Federal Government should do the same.

In New York they have created their own data portal modeled after Data.Gov. The state helps other cities and towns get in on the open data movement. And in smaller cities like Asheville, N.C., local hackers rely on open data to tackle hunger issues in the community. Meanwhile, advocates in California are in the process of formulating a statewide open data law that will create consistency throughout the entire state.

All federal agencies should adopt policies that make non-confidential data accessible to the public and machine-readable.

An Industry Ready for Liftoff

Open data has the potential to create an extremely profitable, U.S.-based industry. McKinsey and Company recently released a study that found in seven sectors alone open data could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value. Investors see the revenue potential for many of these new civic startups., which works with local governments to visualize their budgetary data for the public, received $15 million in funding earlier this year.

There is a hunger for solutions and shaking up of the failed status quo. As a result new civic tech companies are popping up almost daily. Countable, a direct democracy tool gives citizens the power to influence and follow policy, it launched just a few weeks ago. The new site allows Americans to instantly email their representatives to tell them what they think of pending bills. And while the open data movement has come a long way in a short time, there is so much more that can be done to improve our civic process.

Yes, the DATA Act is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Having access to the government’s financial expenditures will increase transparency, but there is so much more valuable government data that the public should be able to easily access. The president should work with Congress and federal agencies across the board to enact comprehensive open data legislation where publicly accessible government data is the norm, not the exception.

Our democracy is not in its most perfect form, and we have a chance to make it better.

It’s a Legacy Thing

Imagine if you were driving across the country, but your GPS navigation only worked in a select few places on your trip. If that’s the case, you might as well just stick to paper maps from AAA. The same goes for other open data products built from government data. When access to data is only available in certain cities, it is not nearly as beneficial. It is the responsibility of the federal government to help fix this problem.

President Obama has declared 2014 a “year of action.” A year where the White House would use executive orders and take administrative actions to “move the ball forward” for the country. Last month, the president unveiled new regulations that will cut carbon pollution from existing coal plants by up to 30 percent by 2030. In February, he signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers. In fact, President Obama has taken more than 20 executive actions this year alone. The president has overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress to move forward with expanded open data efforts. He does not need to act alone.

Americans deserve to see more than just the sliver of data that the DATA Act makes public. As other leaders in the civic tech industry have said before, access to government data is not a privilege; it is a civil right. This data should not just be available in a handful of states or a few hundred cities. No matter where you live in the United States, you should be able to use the tools built on this information.

The president should finish what he started on his first day in office. He has an opportunity to fundamentally change the way citizens interact with their government. We’ve seen it work on both the federal and local levels.

Open data efforts are one of the few issues that Democrats, Republicans and Independents can agree upon. Increasing transparency and accountability are not partisan issues. And open data and the civic tech movement are creating American jobs. These are things we all can all get behind. Both Presidents Reagan and Clinton expanded access to open data while they were in the White House. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. He has an opportunity to take the open data movement to the next level. He began his presidency with a commitment to a more open government. Now it’s time to see it through.

The time for a true federal open DATA Act is now.

Maury Blackman is CEO of Accela.

This story was originally published by TechWire