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As Socrata Shifts, OpenGov Competes for Smaller Customers

OpenGov's new open data product is launching for its first customer — the city of Denton, Texas.

Less than half a year ago, news broke that the biggest name in government data publishing, Socrata, was trying to expand its customer base to larger public entities.

Today, OpenGov is officially competing with Socrata for the smaller customers. And Denton, Texas, has become the first city to launch OpenGov’s open data solution, with a few more slated to announce adoption soon as well.

From the get-go, OpenGov is looking to differentiate itself from Socrata when it comes to serving those smaller customers. Probably the biggest difference is that OpenGov’s answer is based on open-source code from the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN). OpenGov's open data offering was made possible by their April 2016 acquisition of Ontodia, a company with hundreds of public-sector open data clients.  

That means a base of developers around the world works on the code base on which OpenGov’s solution is founded. It means that Denton can develop its own extensions to make the platform work better for its own purposes, and it means the city can share those solutions with other cities and use other government extensions.

OpenGov also thinks it fits in better with the ethos of transparency that drives a government’s desire to look for a data publishing platform in the first place. In fact, it was one of the main reasons Denton chose OpenGov above other vendors.

“We saw several open data vendors. I think what we really prefer with OpenGov is that they’re based on an open source platform,” said Melissa Kraft, chief technology officer of Denton.

It also helped that OpenGov was less expensive — proprietary models like Socrata’s tend to cost more, and some local government officials have complained that it’s too much for a city that doesn’t have the resources of New York or San Francisco.

The company is also banking on integration as a means of differentiating itself. OpenGov has worked with smaller local governments from the beginning — its first customer was Palo Alto, Calif. — on services that tie into open data such as budget planning. So the idea isn’t just to sell an open data platform to local governments, but also to build a whole host of services that tie into open data. Denton, for example, is offering residents a performance dashboard where the metrics used to track how well the city is doing in each area are linked back to open data sets.

It's a far cry from what Denton used to do with its open data efforts. Before, the data the city released was in PDF form. So a resident, businessperson or civic hacker looking for data might have to scour the city’s comprehensive annual financial report, for example, to find what they’re looking for.

“That’s like 100 pages of stuff,” Kraft said. “Most people aren’t going to take the time to go through that.”

It’s challenges like that that can make it tough to work with smaller government clients, according to OpenGov Chief Executive Officer Zac Bookman. Many rely on legacy systems, they can have small IT staffs and they might not have big budgets to work with.

“It’s the hardest work in the world,” Bookman said. “And I think our customers would say the same thing.”

So it is, perhaps, a bit of a business gamble to take on open data needs in that market after one company already decided it didn’t want to do it. That’s why Bookman says a key part of the company’s move into the space is being responsive to customers. The hope is to work closely with cities to meet unique needs and evolve the product over time — as Bookman puts it, to “shower them with love.”

“One of the things I liked about OpenGov is we can be more agile as we’re making changes,” Kraft said. “It’s not a ‘set it and forget it,’ but ‘how do we optimize it for the target audience we’re trying to reach?’”

Such a model is part and parcel of a shift in the government technology business market, which has served as an incubator for a proliferation of startups in recent years. While government entities in the past often paid big money to established companies for solutions they planned on using for a long time, many are now seeking agile work from smaller firms. As governments move work to the cloud, much of what used to be disk-based software is now a product sold as a service. Meanwhile, people like the digital service consultants at 18F are pushing for more governments to use modular contracts where a solution might come piecemeal from different vendors.

And in places like Denton, even the proprietary model of tech services might be shifting toward open source.

“It’s exciting — I think of it as us being a catalyst for change,” Kraft said. “You think of open data and you think of San Francisco and New York [City], and we’re much smaller, but we’re able to do that with OpenGov.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the following: OpenGov's open data solution was enabled by their April 2016 acquisition of Ontodia, and Socrata continues to compete for open data customers in smaller markets. 

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.