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Can Open Data Find a Business Model?

Leaders in Chicago, Pasadena and Riverside talk about launching and maintaining open data initiatives.

It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t heard of open data by now, and yet the state and local governments working to expose their data are vastly outnumbered by those that are waiting for a solid business case to support the idea before they try it.

There are anecdotes of open data leading to cost savings, improving services and making organizations run more efficiently. But open data, by its nature, does not guarantee anything specifically. The uncertainty that wards off so many is the same trait that makes open data alluring to those who were willing to make the leap of faith. Three open data advocates shared with Government Technology what it takes to get started on open data, why it’s worth it, and the arguments they use when faced with opposition.


Today, Pasadena, Calif.'s open data portal contains 74 data sets and links to GIS map data, crime mapping data, and a permit and case search engine. Powered by Junar through Amazon Web Services, Pasadena’s open data portal is an integral part of the city’s plan to release information with the hope that it will eventually make daily operations easier, said CIO Phillip Leclair.

“Innovation in government is difficult, and those of us who work in government are buried in so much of the operations and the day-to-day, it’s hard to step above it and look out beyond what’s possible,” Leclair said. Open data, he said, is an investment in operations with an unknown payoff. Leclair believes in open data, but admits that getting support isn’t always easy.

One selling point of open data is that it encourages the replication of a phenomenon occasionally seen in government where an employee leaves the organization to develop a product or an application and then sells it back to the place they used to work. “Almost all of the water utility applications that are provided to consumers or provided internally to help with efficiency, those are usually developed by people who used to work for a water utility,” Leclair said. So if innovation is a function of access to information and knowledge of how government works, then governments that release their data are opening themselves up to all kinds of new possibilities.

“Open data to me is really a way to bring about experimentation and new opportunities in your organization,” he said. Pasadena didn’t do open data all at once — the city started piecemeal, first automating its public records request system, then opening GIS data and eventually creating the open data portal through a hackathon — and anyone interested in open data shouldn’t worry too much about planning everything at once, Leclair said. “They just need to jump in and do it.”

Governments don’t have the resources to do everything themselves, so putting the information out there to allow others the opportunity is a common sense solution, he said.

Pasadena choose Junar as its platform because the company was the most supportive of the tight deadline set by the city, Leclair said. He added that cloud-based services like Junar and Socrata were attractive to the city because they can be continually updated with new features. The city considered building its open data platform in-house, but rejected the idea because it didn’t want to develop the necessary tools from scratch or worry about scalability, Leclair said.

Picking the right solution is important, Leclair said, but he contends that open data isn’t about proving a return on investment or even putting it on the same plane as every other technology project. Instead, open data is a philosophy that can fundamentally change how business is done. But it only works if leaders in the organization believe that it will release value, he warns.

“The new face of the CIO in every industry is not someone who understands everything about technology, although that’s useful,” Leclair said. “It’s about being a leader, being a part of the business, trying to get people to try new things, be innovative and creative. It’s about relationships and building businesses and change. All the traditional management types who are just thinking about [technology] products and how the phone system’s working and how pretty their website looks are missing what’s happening.”


In July, the city of Riverside, Calif., launched its own transparency portal called Engage Riverside, a homemade platform that ties together open data efforts that had been scattered across city Web pages in previous years. The city couldn’t afford the cloud-based solutions offered by Junar or Socrata, but open data was viewed as too important to ignore, Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing said.

Deesing said launching the portal took 200 hours, and there are plans to continue adding new data especially around GIS. When asked why she's putting time into this initiative when there are so many other things to focus on, Deesing replied, “Why not?”

She admits the city can’t predict what future insights, services and products will come from opening the data. But she's convinced there will be benefits.

“Similar to the early days of the open source movement, we don’t yet fully understand the potential of open data, but we inherently know it is critical to breaking down silos of information,” Deesing said. “Data mash-ups from varying agencies have the potential to answer questions that have yet to be asked and help solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

When the city started opening its data, officials realized it would be too time consuming to release everything, so they narrowed the scope. Senior Software Engineer Chris Tilden said Riverside looked at the most popular data sets in other cities like Chicago and used that as a priority list.

Crime data, fire response, 311 repairs and budget data were among the most popular, and today those continue to be the most downloaded data sets on Riverside’s website. In less than a month, Engage Riverside’s data sets have received more than 400,000 views, Deesing said.

Just as the Boy Scouts of America follow the tenet of trying to “leave this world a little better than you found it,” Riverside is making a time investment in releasing its data the right way, Deesing said. “We’re using the Boy Scout approach in that this is taxpayer data so we’re trying to return it in a better condition than it was found, adding value to it and making it meaningful to the citizens, not just checking off a box and saying, ‘OK, we did open data.’”


Chicago is frequently cited as a city government with an impressive open data offering. Built on Socrata, Chicago’s open data portal hosts more than 200 data sets accompanied by tools and visualizations for understanding the raw information. The city also opened its 311 system through a Code for America project in 2012 that spawned a national program called Open311 Labs.

Chicago’s Open311 project was launched through a civic organization called Smart Chicago Collaborative, led by Executive Director Dan O’Neil. O’Neil helped write the Eight Principles of Open Government Data in 2007, and he has worked with governments to develop civic apps and open data ordinances for more than a decade.

O’Neil is an open data advocate, but said he’s disappointed in the amount of activity and discourse related to Chicago's Open311 APIs.

"I don’t think it’s going that great," he said. "It’s not an everyday part of regular residents’ lives. That’s for sure. On the other hand, 311 is a regular part of life for tens of thousands of people every day. … I want to talk more about it, I guess that’s what I’m saying. We need to find ways to make products that people love and can’t live without, and I think we have this fallacy that it’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s a lookup tool for this open data.’ That’s not it. You’ve got to go further.”

App development based on Open311 data has been sluggish, O'Neil said, despite Chicago's thriving civic tech community.

“If it was going to happen anywhere, I think there’s a good case that it would have happened here in Chicago. We have a good civic tech community, we have a responsive government, we have an open 311 system, we have lots of data, and I don’t think it’s happened. So what’s up with that? I’d like to look into that. And, in fact, it may not be a sad story. It may not be a frustrating story at all. It may just be a story of residents calling up on the telephone and getting a service request done by the city, and everything’s great. We may have been wrong about the necessity around [creating an open] 311.”

O'Neil said he's still waiting to see city government data combined with other information in ways that lead to compelling products. “There’s lots of project development, there’s lots of stuff going on, but I don’t see products being made,” he said. “The solution is using government data as simply one ingredient in larger products.”

For example, local agencies generate lists of swimming pools that have failed inspection. But in order for the data to be useful as a lead list for pool cleaners, it needs to be combined with additional information like descriptions of the facility where the pool is located and phone numbers for building superintendents. “There’s stuff way beyond what we’re at," O'Neil said, "and there’s not enough people thinking beyond stuff that’s published by governments as open data.”

Still, he said, the business case for open data is there. “Open data provides raw fodder for the creation of new and interesting products. The challenge is to make it sustainable, and I haven’t seen anybody win on this yet — to make that data more valuable through other means, by mashing it up with other data sets, by integrating it with existing commercial products. By really having businesses work hard at figuring out how they can monetize this stuff.”

Despite the challenges, O'Neil encourages governments to embrace open data. “The reason it’s worth publishing open data is because it is a component of a larger trend that feeds into the big data movement, it feeds into the overall efficiencies that you can have when you use data in decision-making,” he said. “There’s no reason not to publish lots of open data if you’re a government, because it’s just a very good practice so that people can know more and people can make tools and interested residents can use the data to make their lives better. So it’s absolutely worth it, we just have to do more and more.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.