OpenGov Voices: The next chapter of open data

Andreas Addison, civic innovator of Richmond, Va.

Open data has become foundational for improving government accountability, fueling entrepreneurship and civic technology, and for building citizen- and customer-focused digital services. We are at the doorstep of the next chapter in open data and many questions remain about whats next. A 2015 open government data study by The Pew Research Center in partnership with The Knight Foundation found that the public’s awareness about open data has improved their perception of government. However, the results of the effectiveness in which it has helped government be more accessible and accountable is varied. The value of open data is not growing as many thought it would. From the public’s standpoint, what have been the real changes created from open data initiatives. How has government truly become transformed and changed by open data?

Government is like an aircraft carrier. Turning sharply is near impossible. That is why building small tug boats of change are important to alter its course. Open data and open government are those tug boats.

This analogy has resonated with me for several years and I think its a fantastic expression for how to change government. Open data and open government initiatives are those tug boats, and have done great work to change the course of the bureaucratic, paper driven monolith that is our federal government. Government is becoming more digital and thus accessible. We have seen many examples of what is possible, but more is needed.

Here is what I see next in open data. For starters, we need to transition from open data to open government, from merely publishing public data and information to making access to government simple and easy. This needs to translate down to state and local governments. Institutionalizing innovation, through applying private sector thinking and approaches, in small meaningful and focused manners, will change the course of government. Many governments have stepped up to lead open government initiatives, such as Boston, LA, San Francisco, Louisville and New York City. We need coordination of efforts across the country to drive innovation, increase public value and perception of open data, and to build equity for access for all.

  1. You can only grow the quality of data by using it.” — Amen Ra Mashariki, chief analytics officer, NYC. Government has published several hundred thousand datasets nationwide. We can see on the open data portal that they are being updated regularly, but there minimal views of this data. Is it worth it? In my experience, open data initiatives’ lesser known impact is realized in the process where government learns of reviewing and preparing a dataset for publication. Data quality issues abound, as with any dataset (particularly when we humans are involved with creating it), but by reviewing data in preparation for publication, we begin to see problems and issues with our processes that were never highlighted before. We learn the limitations of current datasets when we begin to review them for publication. We begin to make improvements to data as we begin to use and work it, we define what the data says and what it doesn’t. Publishing open data improves data quality and operations. We need to tell this story!
  2. Open data policies need teams. I have seen many open data policies outline the creation of positions within government to lead it to the next level, but they can appear as solo agents of change. Often seen as their own entities, sometimes as a political pawn for a checklist of an elected official to claim transparency and openness. We need open data management teams created to support these new open data positions from across all agencies to implement open data and government practices. Open data policy positions need to be strategic vision leader(s), but they also require organizational support from all departments and agencies. We need versions of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service for state and local government.
  3. Data standards. There are a multitude of datasets published all across the country, but can they be used in comparison with each other? We saw a movement to standardize public safety data concerning health and food inspections in the LIVES data standard with Yelp, Code for America and several city partners. But we need more. We need data standards for budgets, finance reports, public safety data and other key operational data. We need the ability of minimizing the technical knowledge required to create comparisons. Data needs to be translatable to a the common resident. Acronyms, codes, titles and abbreviations need to be presented so we can all interpret and understand what is being expressed. Keep it simple and uniform.
  4. Performance improvement creates accountability. One of my favorite parts of the What Works Cities initiative by Bloomberg Philanthropies (of which Sunlight is a part!) is the performance management focus. “What gets measured, gets improved,” said Peter Drucker. So, let’s measure government! One key challenge with performance scorecards and dashboards currently implemented across the United States (like KCStat and LAStat) is that beyond their initial launch, they struggle to gain regular traffic. However, the sheer reality that they exist creates a focus within the organization to be accountable for their area of operations. Performance management of key services creates accountability throughout the organization. Every level of government should implement performance dashboards built upon their open data portals. I am eager to see how the What Works Cities initiative drives this concept forward with best practices and lessons learned.

We are on the cusp of transforming our communities through unlocking the power of open data. When combined with private-sector approaches, we can make government work so seamlessly that we barely even know its there. This won’t be overnight, but the key pieces and foundation are there to build upon. Our next round of open data and open government leaders need to take our current momentum, and catapult it into the future.

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