Reasons to Not Release Data, Part 3: It’s Hard!

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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 Difficulty.

It’s hard

9. It’s hard / It’s too complicated
A. I don’t know how to start
  • “I’m happy to help! Let’s talk about the ways in which releasing this data could be beneficial to the public and to the government.”

  • Look to clarify what parts are complicated: The actual data release, identifying what information can be released, publishing online, etc. Break the issue into parts and identify what needs more research, what can be tackled administratively, and what steps could be done collectively with the help of government IT staff, community actors like civic hackers, etc, or through managerial buy-in.

B. I don’t know how to engage my government/my boss on this issue
  • Identify why you’re interested in open data, what benefits you think are particularly relevant to your community/department, and what issues stakeholders need more education about to get on the same page.

  • If you’re approaching your government from the outside, look for champions or key actors in government whose work intersects with information collection, maintenance, or innovation, such as IT staff, innovation coordinators, archivists, and clerks. Explore whether particular agency or council staff are active on social media or have supported technology related initiatives, such as community broadband or website development. Start with these “easy converts” or existing relationships you have and work on an education and policy strategy together.

  • If you’re approaching within government, explore what the internal implications, benefits, and advances are for opening data within your department. Pitch open data as a way to cement current systems that follow best practices and update others to support administrative ends such as reducing costs, increasing public visibility, and enhancing intra- and interagency communication.

C. I don’t know who to talk to about it
  • “Can we ask around and find out who could help us? I’m happy to help with that effort.”

  • Often, strong open data movements start with actors both inside and out of government. If you’re having trouble identifying allies in one sector, look for champions and co-leads in the other. Community groups with overlapping interest may include a local chapter of US PIRG, the League of Women Voters, FOI advocates, Code for America, tech meetups, and more.

D. I don’t know how to organize on this issue
  • “Who could help us move forward with this? Let’s build a coalition and create momentum in the government and in the community.”

  • Connecting with other communities that have organized on this issue is a great way to start, as is just gathering together relevant stakeholders in your network. (That’s how many coalitions form.)

  • Set goals for what you’re organizing for — a policy, a broader ‘initiative,’ a hearing, a Brigade — and focus your efforts on drawing together actors who are knowledgeable about the ends.

E. I honestly haven’t ever heard of an API or {insert other data term here}
  • “An API is like _____ ” (use an analogy that the individual is familiar with,  e.g. a translator)

  • APIs — or, Application Programming Interfaces — are just one piece of the open data puzzle, a way to access and select data and are most often used in software. You don’t need an API to have open data, though it can help in accessing the data made available. (Then again, so can bulk data.)

  • If an open data initiative is being slowed by buzzwords or unfamiliar terminology, take the time to educate, to identify what’s needed to start working, and to break down the list of competing concepts.

F. You’ll need to write custom software / our system can’t do that
  • “Potentially, but not definitely. Can we explore more of what your current systems provide and discuss further? Some governments have been exploring options that build on existing software. There may be a low cost way to do that here, but regardless, there are many options.”

G. It will be hard to parse the data and put it online
  • “It could be hard. Let’s talk through the steps and find out what I can do to help or what resources might exist to make the process easier.”

H. It’s unfamiliar / I honestly don’t know what open data is
  • “Open data is based on the principles of proactively providing data online in a structured, machine-readable format with restrictions as to access and reuse.”

  • Share resources with them that can help explain. There are many resources that outline the principles of open data, including Sunlight’s Open Data Guidelines and resources from many other organizations.

I. We don’t have data
  • “Do you collect, produce, or process information in your job? There is likely some kind of data created by the work you do — let’s find out what it is.”

J. I don’t know what data is available that can be opened
  • “What data do you have? What do you think is interesting, or what have people expressed an interest in knowing about? Do you manage public information or information commonly asked for in public records or FOI requests? These could be good places to start.”


10. We don’t know how to address our backlog
A. We don’t know how to address our archives
  • “This is an iterative process. Where are low hanging fruit? What would make your job easier? Let’s start there.”

  • Prioritizing can be helpful here, so that opening data can happen in stages rather than being viewed as one gigantic task. Work with them to talk about groups of data that can be released, helping to address the backlog issue with small steps.

  • Inventories and audits of data can also help clarify and identify opportunities to begin to break through the backlog. (More about data inventories in our Open Data Policy Guidelines.)


11. We won’t be able to keep up! / We don’t have the time / It changes too quickly
A. I don’t have time, and no one will help me
  • “What is your reason for being too busy? Are there ways that opening up the data might actually help you with your job or make your agency more efficient?”

  • “Are you sure that no one will help you? Have you asked, outlining the reasons you think this is a good idea? I’d be happy to help with that conversation and see who we can get on board to help with this.”

B. There will be unending data release
  • “Can you fulfill your mission/purpose to the best of your organization’s ability if you do not try to keep up with change? Let’s talk again about the reasons that opening this data would be beneficial and could actually help your agency.”

C. Our staff can’t handle new software/training/processes
  • “Why not? What are the concerns here? Are they interested in trying to meet this challenge? If not, why, and how can we help encourage them?”

  • “Are there incremental steps we can take to work with your current system?”

D. We don’t have the technology / We don’t have a website / We don’t have the servers for this
  • “There are many currently available tools and solutions that we can explore. Let’s talk about the different options that are available, starting based on what you have now.”

  • “Is it possible to ask for these things or funding for them? Who makes that decision?”

E. We would have to take our entire production system offline for a couple of days to program the system to get the data you want.
  • “You may be able to set up real time data flows.”

  • “Let’s start by publishing the bits that don’t change that often.”

  • “Publish the metadata, with links to a machine-readable representation of the data (or an API) that isn’t part of your main data publishing platform.”


12. There’s too much data
  • “Let’s approach this in stages and think about it as releasing groups of data.”

  • Ask if they mind you running some experiments (and gently show them it is practical to release data, even if there is “too much” of it).


13. It will take too much of our time.
A. People will contact us to ask about stuff
  • “Couldn’t there be useful interactions as a result of that? Could citizen engagement help improve the data and what your agency does? If you explain the data well with the release, the questions you receive could provide meaningful feedback that will help your agency.”

B. We’ll get spam
  • “We don’t have to include email addresses in the data.”

  • “Those email addresses may already be on the website.”

  • “There are spam filters that could help with that.”

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