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Who Cares About Open Data?

A vocal minority of government and civic activists say open data is the future, but the public is largely unconcerned.

Every day there’s a new initiative, portal or project that intends to transform the life of a city’s residents using the power of data. Just yesterday, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $42 million initiative to incubate open data projects in 100 mid-sized cities. But a unique report published by the Pew Research Center on April 21 shows that the public’s awareness and enthusiasm for open data does not match that of government’s.

The report, called Americans’ Views on Open Government Data, takes data from a survey that aimed to answer questions about how and whether people engage with their governments online, their awareness and attitudes toward open data programs, and their expectations for the future. 

John Horrigan, the report’s main author and a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said there’s a mismatch between the small community of open data enthusiasts and the general public.

“It’s natural to expect those people who are living and breathing this issue and working on it every day to think that everybody loves this stuff,” Horrigan said. “What we find in the survey is not so much that the general public doesn’t like this stuff – it’s that they’re not very aware of it.”

The survey found that while 65 percent of Americans have used the Internet to find some kind of government data within the past 12 months, those activities are far simpler than the advanced data efforts being propositioned by governments today. Just 2 percent of those surveyed, for instance, reported using a digital 311 service to report a problem to their local government. Far more common was that people searched online for general information about their state, local or federal government.

Those who are familiar with government’s open data efforts are mixed about the prospects. Roughly half of those surveyed said they believed open data could improve a variety of tasks, including allowing journalists to cover government activity more thoroughly (56 percent agreed), making government more accountable (53 percent), improving quality of government service (49 percent), allowing citizens to influence government affairs (48 percent), and creating better decisions by officials (45 percent).

One of the most interesting findings, Horrigan said, is that the public’s confidence in open data correlates with a general trust or mistrust in government. Those who trust government’s decision-making abilities are more likely to believe that open data holds promise for the future. For those who claimed faith in government’s decision-making abilities, belief in the previously noted impacts of open data climbed about 20 to 30 percent each.

Political partisanship was also identified as a marker for confidence in open data, with Democrats tending to have a 6 to 9 percent greater chance of believing in the positive impact of open data.

The public reported a range of comfort levels in sharing data with government depending on the subject matter. Sharing data online about the health and safety of restaurants, for instance, was found to be fairly innocuous by most, with 82 percent of adults surveyed reporting that they didn’t mind sharing that kind of data. Only 22 percent, however, reported comfort in sharing information about their mortgages.

The report placed its survey respondents into four categories based on sentiment:

  • Ardent Optimists” (17 percent of adults surveyed) are all-in with open data. They believe in the power of open data to make positive change. 
  • Committed Cynics” (20 percent) have a low level of trust in government and while they are steady users of online services, expectations of open data having positive impacts in the future are low.
  • Buoyant Bystanders” (27 percent) like the idea of data improving government operations, but they are unlikely to use such tools. This group is more trusting of government than other groups, but it may not matter because they aren’t the ones using online services.
  • Dormant Doubters” (36 percent) are the largest group. They don’t use the Internet to find information or use services often, they exhibit a low level of trust in government, and they don’t believe open data programs are apt to improve services or increase accountability.
With so much ambivalence, distrust and ignorance surrounding open data, the survey findings suggests that government has a lot of work to do if the public is to get more involved with open data and its associated projects. 

“For stakeholders, a message is while you cultivate these initiatives, you have to do more to make the public understand what they’re all about, that they exist and what the potential is of them,” Horrigan said. “Because right now, we’re not seeing lots of Americans with awareness of these open data initiatives.”

The full report can be found at the Pew Research Center.

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