The Success of Open Data Depends on Open Standards

Making cities "smart" depends on the use of open standards that make open data discoverable and usable.

by Denise McKenzie, Ron Exler / September 16, 2014

To support economic, social and collaboration goals, governments around the globe are pursuing open data initiatives: San Francisco has doubled down on open data with a simplified portal geared toward fulfilling strategic plans, while the California controller has unveiled its first open data portal, and Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma and Utah are said to lead the nation in open data initiatives

Ultimately open data is so important that state and local governments -- and even the feds -- are rolling out policies related to the practice.

Sharing and reusing data can reduce the cost of developing and maintaining the data, and can increase the data's value by making it more widely used. Open data provided by governments also creates opportunities for businesses to innovate and profit by enhancing the data to offer more useful data and new services for governments, businesses and consumers. One organization -- called the Civic Ninjas -- is using open data to not only build solutions for government and citizens, but also provide ongoing support so that those solutions can succeed in the public sector.


Open data from many sources is shared by many apps that use many cloud computing resources. Open standard interfaces and encodings make this "data sharing ecosystem" possible.

Most government data has a geospatial component, such as street addresses and geographic positions, making said data more varied and complex than most people realize. Often the same mappable feature will have different names in different databases because the data was created by different organizations for different purposes. Outdoor (geospatial) and indoor (spatial) data could be 2-D, 3-D or 4-D, and could be raster, vector, point cloud or some other spatial data type, such as triangulated irregular network (TIN), or a floor plan and story scheme for a building. 

Just as the Web’s value derives from an open standards-based publish/discover/use philosophy, unlocking the value of government data depends on open standards. These include standard schemes for naming things and describing relationships (data models) and standard ways of describing data sets (metadata), as well as standard software interfaces and data encodings that make data publishable, discoverable and immediately usable. 

Distributed access to data, including spatial data, is critical to providing and improving government services. For example, planners are going beyond modeling individual buildings and urban landscape features to modeling whole sites, districts, cities, regions and even countries. This involves integrating data from many disparate data sources, including thousands of sensors and cameras. Making cities "smart" depends on the use of open standards that make open data discoverable and usable (with permission), and on demand by Web service-based apps running on any platform from any platform provider, such as Apple, Google or Microsoft. Such apps are rapidly becoming the vehicle for solutions supporting integrated energy planning, transportation, visitor information, location marketing, emergency/disaster management, real estate and many other functions.

Publishing data to respond to specific spatial queries from specific apps on specific platforms can be accomplished without standards. But a key goal of open data and smart cities is to be open to innovation – new services and new apps that tap into the same reservoirs of data. 

Data.gov is home to U.S. government open data, where one can find data, tools and resources to conduct research, develop Web and mobile applications, create data visualizations, and more. Discovery of location data on Data.gov is based on the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Catalog Services – Web Interface Standard and ISO metadata standards. These standards enable many data sets to be discoverable using the same catalog system. Other standards from the OGC and ISO enable services on the Data.gov portal to give users flexible access to geospatial data. The standards allow data managers at all levels of government to easily add new sources of data and developers to write applications that provide access to data in the Data.gov catalog. 


Many open source products – and almost all vendor-propriety products implement open standards to access open data. Shown in the figure at left are open source disaster management applications that use open standards including the Open GeoSMS Standard – to access open data.

The White House launched an initiative recently that aims to expand the use of climate data nationwide, hosted on Data.gov at climate.data.gov. The goal is to help communities cope with the impacts of global warming. The Washington Post on March 19 quoted Dawn Zimmer, mayor of Hoboken, N.J., as saying that the move allows her city, "to conduct a data-driven analysis and demonstrate that a comprehensive strategy to address Hoboken’s flooding challenges is a cost-effective solution to protecting our area that will also save the federal government money in the long term."


IndoorGML, a standard under development in the Open Geospatial Consortium, aims to provide an open encoding for indoor navigation applications.


Cities are a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces. There is tremendous potential for open Building Information Modeling (BIM) in the design, construction, ownership and operation of buildings and capital projects, and buildingSMART International is developing a Web-service oriented version of its open IFC standards that will help move the industry in that direction. 

Government information system executives constantly face decisions about open versus closed platforms. Often, the latest, most enticing features and capabilities are available to early adopters only by committing to a vendor's closed platform. But the art of procurement lies in avoiding deep and long-lasting commitments to closed systems, instead cultivating open solutions that help move both users and providers in the direction of openness. 

Denise McKenzie is the executive director of the Communications and Outreach Program for the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), and Ron Exler is a senior consultant with the OGC.