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Open Data’s Next Move

The information is out there somewhere. Now, can we find it and use it?

Data is nothing and everything at once. Any data point a person can think of is either an arbitrary label fabricated to make a complex world more intelligible, or an imperfect measurement or characterization of some physical world phenomena. But people cling to information as if it were the only thing keeping them from being sucked into outer space, because there really is nothing else to rely on. Every decision every person has ever made has been based on some kind of data, whether something as nebulous as one’s feelings at a given moment or as concrete as cell D18 in a spreadsheet.

People will never stop searching for more information, more things to measure and catalog, and when they run out of things in the external world, nervous systems will be monitored and analyzed live, cross-indexed with environmental data to map the probability of future events, showing that brain-states and biochemistry aren’t actually as nebulous as they once seemed. A steady flow of reliable and easily accessible data will radically transform how people behave and what civilizations look like.

Open data isn’t just a budget line-item — it’s one tentacle of a self-organizing cephalapod that humankind will pilot out of the ocean and beyond Earth’s crust to new civilizations.

But before man can traverse the galaxy inside a laser-eyed tentacled beast, he must first learn to crawl. All the information in the universe already exists — it just needs to be collected, tools created to make sense of it, and mechanisms developed for distribution and consumption. And mankind today has more prosaic concerns, besides. A married couple who wants to send their daughter to the best possible elementary school doesn’t have all the information they need to make a well informed decision.

Choosing a school today might consist of listening to anecdotes from neighbors and friends, finding a couple data points online like average test scores and graduation rates, and then making a gut decision. But there’s a lot missing. There’s missing data, missing tools, missing organizations, missing technology, missing governance and legislation. Open data is frequently referred to as a “movement,” not because it sounds good, but because a widespread and organized adoption of data transparency really would change everything.

USODI Director Waldo Jaquith
U.S. Open Data (USOD) is a nonprofit that collaborates with federal, state and local government agencies to meet a future of widespread data transparency. The organization’s goal, USOD Director Waldo Jaquith (pictured) said, is to make the term “open data” sound as dated as “horseless carriage.” It wants the world to take data’s openness for granted, but today’s tens of thousands of municipal and special-use government data silos far from resemble that future.

“Everything is a barrier,” Jaquith said. “There are no more than a few dozen people in the entire country who work in government who have the phrase ‘open data’ in their job title or job description. So if they work on improving the state of open data, best case they get a clap on the back and a hearty handshake. Worst case they get fired because they accidentally opened some data they shouldn’t have.”

An open data future is one in which new information is available for decision-making, but also one in which transformative ideas are made possible. With a standardized open data platform designed for use with the nation’s legislative body, for example, today’s 535-member Congress could be expanded to 50,000 members, Jaquith suggested. Improvement in the data world could beget an evolutionary leap in democracy.

“If you wanted to adapt the House to have much smaller districts, well, you can do that,” he said. “Anybody can file a request to propose changing existing laws and that becomes legislation that is then passed in an electronic vote, which is recorded on an open basis and the law changes and is easily amended and everybody gets a copy of it. All sorts of exciting things like that are possible if we just get to the point where we use common standard schemas for the storage and transmission of government data.”

Open data is improving by leaps and bounds, Jaquith said, but there’s tremendous inertia. It’s simply easier not to do something, especially if that something is opening data. But promises of a glittering future can be gleaned from today’s data landscape.

A recent analysis conducted by USOD illustrates the power of unlocking data. The organization compared corporation registration records held by Virginia with the records held by the city of Charlottesville, Va. The group said the city had no idea that one-third of its corporations even existed, representing millions in lost tax revenue.

If one metric in one city could save millions, then the lethargy surrounding open data is at least a little confusing. There are more benefits to be unearthed from open data, but many of them remain unknown because most people don’t even know what data sets government is collecting in the first place, said Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer of the Governance Lab (GovLab) at New York University.
The GovLab attempts to build better governance and education around the data ecology. In other words, when government officials ask questions like, “Why is open data worthy of my resources?” Verhulst tries to supply a scientific answer.

The GovLab looks at which government data sets are being released, who is using them and what the impact is — and then it feeds that information back into the ecosystem to encourage more open data development. Last year, the organization launched the Open Data 500, a project that examined how (mostly small and medium-sized) corporations are using government data to build revenue.

“The next stage is to deepen that and to start understanding other linkages across these corporations, what is the broad economic impact, what is the social impact and a variety of other questions that are yet to be answered as it relates to the impact of open data on the economy and on society,” said Verhulst. “They need to see the value proposition.”

A dearth of mechanisms that process and deliver data to people is among the biggest gaps between today and the future. If there’s a need for government to open more data, there’s an even bigger need for someone to design tools that make sense of the data that’s out there. The GovLab hopes, Verhulst said, that by measuring today’s open data efforts, it can encourage the opening of more data and the creation of more tools, not just in government, but in the private and scientific spheres too.

The narrative of futuristic technology has forever been centered around ease of use: Just press a button and the computer will do all the work — amazing! But there’s a lot of work to be done. There are online health data portals in more than a dozen states, for example, under the MONAHRQ program led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that supply performance data on dozens of metrics that could be crucial to a patient’s decision-making process. But most people don’t know the portals exist, so when they’re searching for a doctor or medical facility, they’re unlikely to go 40 clicks deep into an obscure portal and then conduct their own data analysis. If a Google or Siri doesn’t present information to people directly, it may as well not exist.

If today’s fractured data standards were applied to the physical world, it would be chaos. Carpenters would need 4,000 screwdrivers to fit all the different screw heads, every neighborhood would speak a different language, and every third traffic light would use a different color scheme. The future of technology lies in the unification of standards and the connection of services, said Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

“Today we crowdsource certain components of business processes like funding through Kickstarter and problems through SeeClickFix, but the real potential is being able to link those intelligently together,” Haisler said. “We assume that an API is sufficient for interoperability and that’s a flawed model. What we really need are ontologies, standards and people to create frameworks for how information is stored.”

The standards problem is further compounded by financial troubles. The same question about how open data is or isn’t financially viable for an organization also impedes progress. When companies like Apple or Google pursue new ventures that rely on an open exchange of information, like HealthKit and Google Fit, the proprietary platforms that are intended to drive revenue ultimately cripple the products themselves and consequently the entire data ecosystem.
“Maybe open data is not something you monetize right off the bat,” Haisler said. “Maybe the business models have to completely flip upside down with open data. When the Internet was created, they didn’t charge for it. It was a platform that other business models are built on top of.”

Anyone who doesn’t see the depth of potential in open data can’t be blamed for it. The current data landscape isn’t a garden ripe for picking. Most of the companies in the Open Data 500, a list of open data firms compiled by the GovLab, have niche applications, and about 25 percent of those companies are now defunct, said Haisler. That 500 clever applications are even necessary is an indication of the problem. For open data to succeed, the environment must be such that one good application is all anyone would need.

The early days of open data are over and people want to know what’s next, said Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation and senior analyst at Washington, D.C., think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. People want to know if open data can drive local economic development and innovation, whether there’s a business case for open data, and the answer is yes, said Castro, who also writes a column for Government Technology. Open data can drive economic development, it can drive innovation and there can be a business case. The question is no longer if open data can work, but how it will work.

Open data has always been driven by the technologist’s office, but the potential influence of open data begs a cultural change that would place the technology in everyone’s hands, Castro said — both in and out of the organization. The future of the young girl whose parents are searching for the best possible elementary school depends on it.

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