Why I care about open data (and you do too)

Nametag reading, "Hello, my name is Open Data."
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sunlight Foundation

As a recent arrival to the Sunlight Foundation, I’ve just introduced myself around the office. I thought I’d also take this opportunity to introduce myself to our partners, readers and collaborators through the blog. In doing so, I thought I’d also be able to share my perspective as a relative newcomer to the effort to promote and establish open data policies.

As that relative newcomer, I can also share with you that the term “open data” wasn’t necessarily in the forefront of my mind when I thought about what I wanted out of my state and local governments. However, it really should have been. Here’s why:


I’m a political scientist by training and I’ve done a fair amount of teaching and thinking about civic engagement. Rates of political participation vary a tremendous amount by age, income, and education, with lower figures on each of these scales translating into lower levels of participation — and ultimately, lower levels of substantive representation. An important mediating issue that prevents some kinds of political participation is lack of practical knowledge: where to go or how to register to vote, who represents you and what they’re supposed to be doing, what’s being discussed that might affect you — and by whom, and where. Open data policies aim to make accessing this information easier. Many of the tools we create here at Sunlight using this open data – for example, our Open States tool – are intended to help make accessing this kind of information as easy as a quick internet search.

A second kind of access that interests me is access to government-collected databases of public information. As a researcher, I rely on having access to good quality data. The better my data, the more accurate the work I’m able to do in the public interest. Being able to explore demographic trends in connection with different kinds of government expenditure data, for example, lets researchers of all stripes evaluate the effectiveness of government policies, propose modifications, and generally provide additional (and often free) material for lawmakers who want to advance policy which is grounded in data-supported conclusions. The more that public information is made openly available for bulk download – one of the critical requirements of truly open data – the more that researchers have access to the information that allows us to contribute to the collective project of improving our governments and communities.

A third kind of access is the access that software developers need in order to create new software for citizens to use to access government information. While I use data primarily for analysis, developers use data and online connections to government in order to create tools that make all of our lives a little bit easier. When’s the next bus coming? In many cities you can use the Next Bus app, thanks to good access to government data. How do I let someone know that there’s a pothole or broken light in need of repair? Sites like SeeClickFix work with state and local governments to streamline citizen reporting and bring everyday problems to the attention of people in charge of fixing them.


While getting access to government information and government officials is critical, another important part of the rationale for open data is how it permits us to maintain a better sense of what our governments are doing on our behalf. Through our tax dollars, we pay governments to do a number of critical tasks for us that we can’t do effectively or efficiently through individual means: defend us from physical attack, provide infrastructure for transportation, deliver basic education to all children, protect our environment and our public health. Because we pay them to work as our agents, we expect to enjoy a transparent view of what it is they’re doing, where practicable. “Transparency in government” is the concept that we should be able to learn fully what, when, and how our government does what it does, and ideally as soon as possible to the moment when they actually do it.

In an internet-enabled age, we are capable of doing this better, and more cheaply, than ever before. In the past, it was more challenging and costly to provide this information to citizens and information was available chiefly to the extent that highly skilled reporters were able to ferret it out. The more that public information can be posted and made accessible online, the more we are collectively able to see and understand about how our government is working. When we can see how it is working, we are able to observe why certain things we would like to come to pass are, or are not, occurring. Why did a certain vendor win a government contract? When we have full access to information on the government procurement process, we can see the requests, compare the bids, and evaluate the fairness of the process for ourselves, if we would like. How are companies and organizations contributing to campaigns for sitting and potential public officials? Tracking that information allows us to monitor our officials for inappropriate favoritism towards donors in contracting and in policy outcomes.

While aspects of this transparency can be enabled on a case-by-case basis through the creation of individual databases (like state ethics or campaign finance websites), approaching this public need through the window of open data allows us to do it in a much more comprehensive and holistic way. We shouldn’t have to argue for individual windows into government behavior. Instead, we should presumptively be able to watch government at work. For this reason, our Open Data Guidelines argue that the “default should be set to open.” Where there is an important reason, such as citizen privacy, to make an exception, that should be done, but indeed those closures should be exceptions rather than the guiding logic of government information.

The internet lets us create, maintain and transmit this information at a very low cost. Where states and cities choose not to do this, it increasingly makes us wonder what they’re trying to hide.


The product of increased transparency is improved accountability. With the knowledge of increased public awareness of government activity, we should expect to find greater consciousness among government officials regarding how they use their public-granted authority and resources. For those millions of officials who have always striven to offer great public service and who have been disheartened by the turn towards public distrust of government, it should offer a way to demonstrate the high quality of their work and a path to improving perceptions. For the few who abuse the trust they’ve been given, open data increases the chances that problems will be uncovered and documented, due to the larger number of eyes on the problem.