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Transparency: What to Consider Before Releasing Data to the Public

The Center for Technology in Government studies what makes a successful open data initiative, using examples in New York City and Edmonton, Alberta.

Nearly every major city in the U.S. has gotten attention for open data efforts. Government Technology has covered initiatives in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as smaller cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Madison, Wis., to name just a few.

While few would dispute the benefits of more transparent government operations, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) in Albany, N.Y., is taking a look at what governments need to consider before releasing data sets for public consumption.

”The idea that it’s a good idea to know what your government is doing is fundamental to democracy, so we think opening government is a phenomenon that needs to be expanded, advanced and encouraged, and has the potential to make our democracy stronger and make our governments more effective,” said CTG Senior Fellow Tony Cresswell.

The Dynamics of Opening Government Data, released last month, looks at what it actually means to release government data sets to the public. Sponsored by software company SAP, the paper evaluates two open data releases – restaurant inspection data in New York City, and road construction information in Edmonton, Alberta.

According to the CTG, governments would be wise to thoughtfully consider which data sets they release. “Picking data resources that have a value proposition both internal to government and externally in the community seem to be the ones with the biggest payoff,” Cresswell explained.

Secondly the release of the data can’t be the end game. Rather, it’s just the beginning. Opening up new data streams for public use will hopefully spur creativity and ideas for new uses. Governments should spend some time thinking about how the data might be used ahead of time, so that it can adjust resources accordingly.

In the New York example, the initial release of restaurant inspection data online in 2007 brought negative reactions from restaurant owners. Following an unfavorable inspection, they were anxious to have their establishments re-evaluated in order to improve their score. Responding to the outcry, the city eventually hired more inspectors to facilitate faster re-inspections, and get the corresponding updated evaluation information posted online.

On the technology side, city officials underestimated the public interest in the restaurant inspection data, and IT infrastructure described as “primitive” buckled as a result of all the additional traffic.

The example serves as a cautionary tale for other governments. “If you do a bit of mapping and modeling some of those potential consequences,” said CTG Senior Program Associate Brian Burke, “you can plan for that type of resource shift.” 

In the other open data release analyzed by CTG, the city of Edmonton already provided road construction data to its citizens via a popular static map feature on its website. The high-value data was released to the public, resulting in the creation of the Edmonton Road Construction mobile app that has proven very popular with the public.

”Edmonton is known for its two seasons: winter and road construction. It makes perfect sense that one of its flagship open data initiatives would involve releasing street construction projects data,” the report reads.

The CTG points out that both examples considered in this research were fairly straightforward, but more attention needs to be devoted to open government efforts involving more controversial data.

The recent upsurge in the national gun control conversation provides a perfect example of the trickier side of open data. The New York Journal recently published an interactive map of registered gun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. While the data was legally obtained using public information requests, there was a significant outcry over the information being made public. Many felt that the safety of law-abiding gun owners, including law enforcement officers, was put at risk. Likewise, community members felt that publishing the data put homeowners without guns at risk as well.

”When you get into open government in areas that are politically or socially sensitive," Cresswell said, "it's a much more complicated dynamic.”

Edmonton, Alberta, photo from Shutterstock

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.