Ruminations on Open Data from IODC: Providing Government Open Data

This post is part of a series of thoughts following the 2016 International Open Data Conference and Open Cities Summit I recently attended in Madrid, Spain. See my introductory post on the conference and context for this series of posts.

Pushing not Pulling

A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

-James Madison

The United States was one of the first countries to enshrine the public’s right to information (data) into law. Lawmakers saw this as a counter to the growing government secrecy in the Cold War as a check against the abuses of obscurity and obfuscation. The law required interested citizens to make a request for information from the public entity who held it. This required the requestor to know the information existed and to go through the effort to request it.

While this has been an important part of our tradition of openness and transparency, open data changes the paradigm of the public “pulling” data from government to one in which government “pushes” data to the public with the idea we discussed often at IODC of “open by default.”

If the data can be made available under a FOIA (or FOIL) request, then why not have it available all the time? Why waste the time of citizens to go through the application process, then waste the time of government employees to respond to the request by reviewing the request, compiling the data, and releasing it to the requestor?

This is the point of open data portals and is critical to ensuring a steady stream of data to various stakeholders without the sometimes arbitrary review and dissemination process. As I’ve discussed, government open data has a critical role to play in open societies and for that reason should be made readily available.

Prioritizing Data Releases

Despite what some may think, government doesn’t have the resources to simply make everything available all at once and must prioritize what is released. FOIL/FOIA makes for a good starting point to understand what the public needs and wants from government. Governments should be thoughtful about this process and engage with the stakeholders. As we were reminded by our colleagues in France, the measure of success shouldn’t simply be the number of data sets, but the usefulness users find in the data that’s released. This is a process of not only analyzing the requests that come in, but engaging with the public to know what data would be useful and how it can be made most useful.

In New York City, the Department of Parks and Recreation recently had a very successful Data Jam as part of their release of the most recent tree census. This process not only highlighted the data being released, but engaged the public in ways to make the data intelligible and useful, as well as provided Parks with useful feedback on the data and how it could be made more useful in the future.

Open Data and Open Source

From the beginning of the open data movement, there has been an emphasis on open source technology to power open data platforms. While proprietary software solutions have been and will likely always have a valuable role to play in helping municipalities around the world make their data available to the public, there are also strong arguments for building open source solutions to the problem of storing, cataloging, and disseminating open data.

As the group from France’s Etalab reminded us, the process of running an open data portal is an iterative one. Having started with a proprietary solution, they came to see the need for a home-grown solution that was more flexible and developed uData, an open-source portal they’ve released as a Github project for other municipalities to use and improve on for the mutual benefit of everyone.

There are other open-source solutions, as well as good proprietary solutions to the problem of disseminating open data but in building a community of active and engaged data users, I believe (as did a number of the IODC participants) that sufficient attention needs to be paid to not only what’s delivered by how it’s delivered. In building an open and engaged community of data users, we need to also build an open and engaged community of data and technology managers.

Having discussed the features of open data and the portals that help power it, I’d like take some time in my next post to discuss some of the things open data is not, based on my experience teaching NYC employees with open data.

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