Reasons to Not Release Data, Part 2: Confusion

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Earlier this month, we shared a crowdsourced collection of the top concerns data advocates have heard when they’ve raised an open data project with government officials at the federal, state, and local level, and we asked for you to share how you’ve responded. Dozens of you contributed to the project, sharing your thoughts on social media, our public Google doc, and even on the Open Data Stack Exchange, where 8 threads were opened to dive deeper into specific subjects.

Drawing from your input, our own experience, and existing materials from our peers at the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and some data warriors from the UK, we’ve compiled a number of answers — discussion points, if you will — to help unpack and respond to some of the most commonly cited open data concerns. This mash-up of expertise is a work in progress, but we bet you’ll find it a useful conversation starter (or continuer) for your own data advocacy efforts.

Click here to see other posts in this series.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing challenges and responses from our #WhyOpenData list that correspond to different themes. Today’s theme is Confusion.


3. There’s no clear use for {insert specific type of data here}
  • “Is your team/agency/department working on a deliberate data collection effort? If so, why did you collect the data? What might the original intent have been for collecting this data?”
  • “What do you use the data for?”
  • Open government is now a mature enough concept that you might be able to find examples of people using the same kind of data that comes from other government agencies and initiatives. Share those use cases: “There are many different ways the data might be used in tech development, research, and journalism. For examples, I’ve seen someone combine ‘x data’ and ‘y data’ to get an app that does ‘z function’.”
4. I don’t know what you could possibly need that for
a. How would someone even use that kind of data?
  • “What do you do? What does your agency/program do? Why is that important? Why was it created? The way you use or collect the data indicates some of its value. Opening the information can have a lot of impact on internal government processes, as well as for public stakeholders who need it.”
  • Point to specific examples of how developers, journalists, or other relevant data analysts use this information in their work.
  • Big picture point: We don’t know today what data needs we’ll have a few years from now — what data is vital to furthering our study, impacting our policies, and advancing our technology. But, by working to make the widest pool of public data available now, we can simultaneously hedge against our inability to guess future priorities and give ourselves more fodder for present-day innovation and accountability.
5. What kind of data do you want?
  • “What do you produce/collect/maintain? What data do you draw from?”
  • “Does your agency/government/department have a listing of all its data? That would be helpful for us in identifying what information you could make more available and would help us clarify our ask. If not, can we work toward creating that inventory?”
  • “What kind of data is requested from your agency? Looking at FOIA and public records requests is a great way to gauge what datasets are in the greatest demand.”
6. We need more proven results before we can open data (i.e. What is the ROI of opening this?)
  • “What kind of proven results are you looking for? When was the last time you were lost without GPS, for example? That’s a common use of open data.”
  • Appeal to the agency’s mission. Who are its key public or private constituents?
    • “Releasing open data can foster a sense of collaboration with the business and academic community to solve government issues and improve processes.”
    • “Releasing open data can encourage entrepreneurship and opportunities for economic development, commerce, and increased investment.”
    • You can learn more about building on values in our Open Data Guidelines.
  • “Increasing the accessibility of data can streamline intra-governmental and inter-governmental collaboration, enable the public to assist in identifying efficient solutions for government, and promote innovative strategies.”
  • “Releasing open data further promotes accountability and efficiency, and can foster trust between citizens and their government.”
  • Show examples of similar work which has given a return on investment for the data publisher. See, for example, our roundups of the impacts of opening up datasets like lobbying, zoning, and crime.
  • Point to use cases for how integrating it with other datasets might lead to increased value.
7. The old system works
  • “Tell me about a typical transaction — are there ways in which you think it could be improved?”
  • Opening data doesn’t always mean dramatic change for internal systems. New York City recently opened their budget data without changing their backend financial platform. There are many low cost, low disruption options for data publishing that we can explore together.
8. It would just confuse people
  • “If we want to build public investment and trust in your work, this is a risk worth taking. Trust goes both ways.”
  • If the data is confusing, consider releasing it with context or metadata so that people can understand it.
  • The average person isn’t going to be interested in (or necessarily able to work with) every data set — and they don’t need to be. Experts and stakeholders will self-select what information they need for their work. Your data will make sense to the people who need it. (And if it doesn’t, they’re also the ones who can help identify how the data can (or needs to be) clarified.)

Stay tuned tomorrow for our next #WhyOpenData post on Difficulty.