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Open Data 101

ICMA hears from many local governments that want to improve the way they provide performance data to the public. Recognizing that public access to information improves transparency and citizen engagement, they seek ideas from their peers and from ICMA. I’ve discovered that the Sunlight Foundation offers tools and other resources that can help, including a collection of open data policies from all levels of government. Following is an excerpt from the Foundation's publication Open Data 101.

Defining open data

Open data is data made publicly available for anyone to access and use without making a formal request to the government. Open data is:

  • Available to everyone, online, free, with no registration required
  • Available without legal restrictions on use and reuse
  • Available in forms and formats that make it maximally useful for the broadest range of uses and users.

To improve transparency, local governments have begun proactively sharing large numbers of datasets, while private companies have begun providing platforms (now referred to as “open data portals”) to house some of this data in open formats. Thousands of federal, state, and local U.S. governments share their data.

Why open data?

Over the years, much has been learned about the benefits of opening government data. This data has a wide range of users, including citizen activists, businesses, the research community and government employees. So what are the benefits of opening data, and how are these groups using this information?

Increasing government capacity at low cost

Open data provides a useful method of broadening the range of people benefiting from open government data, thereby increasing government capacity at a low cost.

Encouraging innovation

Businesses, data-focused journalism centers, academic researchers, software entrepreneurs, and open data activist groups can all perform useful data work to shed light on public problems and identify areas where government services could be improved.

Improving internal quality and use of data

Government users often struggle with the time and political cost of obtaining data held across separate departments. Proactive online posting of public data solves this problem by giving internal users full access.

Increased transparency and accountability

Democracy improves when people have data to help them understand how leaders are performing. Open data is a tool for rooting out corruption, holding officials accountable, and promoting public trust by giving citizens greater insight into the activities of government, including information about how tax dollars are being spent.

Increased citizen engagement through two-way communication

Governments have a great deal of info they want the public to have, and they are interested in receiving public feedback to meet existing challenges. Open data provides a new way to think about enhancing two-way communication between governments and the public. Release of raw data creates a different kind of communication flow than can be achieved through traditional public relations practices.

Approaches to opening data

There are two main approaches to opening government data.

1. The first and most basic method is to put data on a website where it is intended to be “open” to the public. This can be as simple as putting a dataset in a spreadsheet and posting it on a webpage.

2. The second, and ideal, approach is to develop a legal structure to undergird the ongoing process of opening data. This method is advantageous in that it:

  • Creates clear lines of responsibility for the management and oversight of data publication and ensures a sustained commitment to these processes
  • Establishes a groundwork for continuity of public access to regularly collected data
  • Creates a space for public participation around data collection and publication
  • Helps governments and citizens gain a better understanding of data holdings.

The first open data policies began to emerge over a decade ago and the Sunlight Foundation has documented the existence of more than 50 formal state and local open data policies. The majority have been established through legislative means such as laws, resolutions, or ordinances. Others have been created through executive means, including memos or directives.

These two approaches to opening data are not mutually exclusive. In some cases, governments begin the process by publishing data online and expand initiatives by developing a formal policy. Though the process can be lengthy, a policy is extremely important to preserving open data. Without it, the public can lose valuable information. For example, a government may decide to reallocate resources designated to maintaining open data efforts.

Getting started

Meet and take stock

A first step in pursuing an open data program is to identify potential champions for the initiative and find ways to bring them together. In early meetings, governments should identify the city’s goals for an open data program (i.e., improve transparency in government operations, generate new methods of reaching and serving citizens), which will help the program develop in line with articulated objectives and help advocates clearly communicate about the initiative to the public. These meetings should also act as a space for identifying the city’s existing open data efforts and creating data inventories.

Engage the public

Following internal evaluation, the door should be open for public discussion, which is essential to success in any open data program. Engaging public actors as soon as possible maximizes their potential involvement. They should have the opportunity to weigh in on the quality of existing data and contribute input about what information would be most valuable to them and what they would like to do with it. This can be done online through the option to submit feedback on a government website, via an open data portal or through in-person methods, such as focus groups. Allowing stakeholders to be involved in the open data process has the added benefit of increasing the chances they will become ambassadors for the initiative.

Develop partnerships

Developing partnerships with open data groups, businesses, and other community partners can help streamline the data release process and support better decision-making. Outside experts can help identify and create connections between community members and the government to examine priorities for data release. During the open data initiative in Cook County, Illinois, for example, the government partnered with the Smart Chicago Collaborative to use the organization’s expertise in developing open data sets and applications to benefit the public, as well as to engage the open data community with the county’s newly available data.

Partners may also help the open data process along by identifying existing data from outside groups, such as nonprofits, think tanks, and academic institutions that can be used in place of or alongside government data to increase its utility. Finally, well-established community partners might work with the government to help mitigate any trust issues that exist between the public and government authorities or agencies.

Publish data

Data publication is an ongoing process. If a city does not yet have a formal portal, a good way to start is to gather together datasets that are already published and put them in one location. A portal can be developed either in house or through an external vendor. Once publication starts, governments can focus on improving data release by:

  • Indexing existing data held by governmental units
  • Referencing existing records access policies in a policy for proactive publication
  • Determining processes for protecting individual privacy and safeguarding sensitive information in data release
  • Developing a process for prioritizing the processing and release of open data
  • Choosing a consistent metadata schema for government data
  • Ensuring that opened data is machine-readable and available for bulk download
  • Ensuring that published data has licensing terms that permit unencumbered public use and reuse
  • Exploring implementing existing data standards to increase interoperability.

Two-way communication is equally important following data release. Governments should collect public feedback about the quality, ease of use, and completeness of data. This dialogue can improve community access to and uptake of public services, as well as increase in civic engagement. Public suggestions for improving open data practices or policies can be solicited online through government website or existing portals.

Demonstrate success

Highlighting open data achievements is a great way to inspire new users and sustain momentum. Cities commonly do this by featuring applications created with open data on city websites or portals. It’s also helpful to notify potential users when new data is added or when datasets are updated. Through this process, cities could consider targeted outreach—for example, reaching out to hospitals when new healthcare data is available. The Open Knowledge Foundation additionally suggests contacting organizations who work with open data, using existing mailing lists or other social networking groups, or directly contacting users who are known to have an interest in the data.

Sustain public engagement

Engaging new users in newly opened data can be achieved through traditional methods, such as press releases, or governments can choose to get more creative in outreach. Competitions, for example, are an innovative way to advertise open data. In 2008, Washington, D.C., hosted one of the first competitions to increase citizen engagement in open data. The city’s chief technology officer challenged developers to use data from the then newly-available open data catalogue to build applications that would make the data useful for citizens, businesses, visitors, and city agencies. In one month’s time, 47 applications—with an estimated value added to the local economy upwards of $2.6 million dollars—were created, paving the way for similar challenges in other cities.1

1 Open Knowledge International, “So I’ve Opened Up Some Data, Now What?”accessed August 1, 2016.

This is an excerpt from “Open Data 101: A History and How-To for What Works Cities,” published by the Sunlight Foundation. Published with permission.

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