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Standards Are Crucial to Successful Open Data Policies

Data standards create a common structure that facilitates information sharing, inter-organizational cooperation and the ability to build on past successes — all important ingredients to driving data-smart innovation.

I recently moderated an event for the National Governors Association at the Harvard Kennedy School. In one session, performance management expert Bob Behn told a group of governors’ chiefs of staff that one of the most basic but often overlooked aspects of an efficient organization is a shared definition of key terms. Simple words can take on significantly different meanings to different people, and if a standard definition for these words is not set, collaboration is stifled by miscommunication.

The idea is that any one piece of information can be constructed in various ways — its operational value depends on a shared understanding. The same holds true for data, which is why standards are crucial to any open data policy. Data standards create a common structure that facilitates information sharing, inter-organizational cooperation and the ability to build on past successes — all important ingredients to driving data-smart innovation.

As usual, progress is being pioneered at the local level. San Francisco was an early adopter of open data and was committed to the successful socialization of its data sets from the start. Data standards are key to this strategy. According to a report by Joy Bonaguro, the city’s chief data officer, data standards “create a multiplier benefit to open data by codifying how data is structured, which allows applications created in one locality to be easily used by another locality or readily integrated into private applications.”

San Francisco, for instance, has adopted a restaurant inspection data standard that it developed with Code for America, Yelp and Socrata. The Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification (LIVES) standard simplifies inspection ratings into an easily understandable and accessible metric available on a restaurant’s Yelp page. Sarah Schacht, Socrata’s public health data adviser, is committed to championing this program. She got food poisoning twice after dining at restaurants that had been rated poorly by local food inspectors, but those scores were difficult to understand, not to mention difficult to access. She paid a steep price in hospital bills as a result. Now Schacht advocates for LIVES as a transparent, intuitive and consistent way to locate this information online. Yelp is such a widely used consumer platform that this data actually reaches customers, who can make more informed dining decisions as a result.

Last October, I joined a panel of government performance managers at the Socrata Customer Summit in Washington, D.C. The panelists discussed how to leverage municipal data streams, agreeing that standards help ensure the usability of data. But once data is usable, it still must be used. Daro Mott, the director of quality and performance for the Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation in Louisville, Ky., said that for the public to realize open data’s full potential, there must be an engaging data story with a committed champion to tell it. With storytellers like Schacht, LIVES is catching on. Ten major cities and counties are now participating, and the list is growing.

Open data policies are becoming the norm for municipalities nationwide. This unprecedented access to public information stands to transform civil society entirely, but its value hits a ceiling when that information cannot be easily exchanged. Open data must also be sharable, and cities like San Francisco, companies like Socrata and people like Schacht are leading the way with data standards. These investments signal a maturation in municipal data strategy, which will lead to the harmonization of intergovernmental data and cross-jurisdictional analytics that can begin to address the more complex problems facing the public sector today.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.