Governments, agencies and cities around the world are increasingly interested in opening up data. Why? The answer is simple: they are all constrained by the resources available and need to do more with less, while also prioritizing innovation and new business development. Open data therefore represents a unique opportunity to innovate public services without increasing expenditure.
At Data.gov we have seen many examples of how open data can be useful, and we have learnt some lessons over the past five years. Here are some ideas, which I hope will be useful for governments and municipalities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
How cities are using open data to foster inclusive development
As part of government, we know that budget constraints limit our aspirations to have inclusive development between government and the people. At Data.gov, we have learned that when people open data from government, particularly at the city level, they can ensure that developers help build or improve the services that are most important to them. So, while a government may not be able to do everything they would like, at least they can help by making a start and engaging with the public.
Designing an effective open data strategy
Our approach to open data was determined by the goals set by President Obama in 2009. The main three pillars are:
- Transparency and accountability, in order to help citizens to see where there might be a problem or corruption.
- Civic good because people can use open data to help their community. For instance, 30% of the congestion on city streets is caused by people looking for parking spaces. So, if we can open up parking information, it helps to actually ease traffic flow and increase productivity in cities.
- Economic growth because when a city releases information about permits, new businesses, and building codes, this actually helps to bring new businesses into the city that can help to grow the economy.
How can mid-size cities implement an open data strategy?
The first step in this process is to look at the data the administration is collecting internally and decide whether or not it should be opened up. Talk to citizens and businesses and find out what they want and how they can use the data.
Some cities carry out e-consultations or ask people for their views through texts or apps. At Data.gov, we recently carried out an e-consultation with our agriculture community in which we focused on food security issues in Africa and developing nations.
It is of vital importance to engage with and enlist your own data owners and departments to create the cultural change that is needed to sustain the launch of an open data site, select and prepare some data sets for initial development, and then schedule ahead.
Finally, get some data sets ready and make sure your departments are prepared for that the questions and outcomes that might result. You need to be aware that the launch is just the beginning of the process and not the end. They say that cities fail with open data or don’t achieve the success they might have because they launch a site and then they don’t do anything with it. So, the key for implementing an open data strategy is to deploy it, iterate it, grow it, then measure, listen, learn, and get feedback from the people and to keep going through the cycle.
Make a cultural change happen internally
Some government officials fear that they are going to release data that they shouldn´t divulge or that involves somebody’s private information and that they may be acting against policy. If you are able to get rid of this fear, then you’re going to have city employees helping instead of fighting you. Working at the top will get that cultural change started, and changes made to the policies on how to release data will support officials as they start to release more data. Also, getting support from managers and influential people makes a huge difference internally.
In the first year of Data.gov, we also found that giving feedback to the data owners about how the data is being used really encouraged them and changed their expectations about what they wanted to do.
What’s next for Open Data?
Increasing participation, improving policies and making the most of the technologies available are the cornerstones of our evolution towards a more open framework.
When we started Data.gov, we thought that this was a government-led activity and that we would be putting government data on a government site and platform. Now the conversation has changed and is based on public/private partnerships with businesses, civil society and nonprofit groups that are using the data not just economically but in ways that can really help improve the quality of life of people around the planet.
In terms of policies, we could improve licensing standards on data openness, and make sure that governments are clear so that the developers can gain access to and use data and know what restrictions, if any, apply.
When it comes to technology, there are many good platforms available for publishing open data but we need to think about interoperability, standards, and building towards a future of linked data that will allow machines to access it and humans to understand it as a whole. At this point, we are still evolving toward that future goal.
What other barriers do you think governments need to overcome?
As the Evangelist for Data.Gov (an open government flagship project for the White House managed by the U.S. General Services Administration), Jeanne Holm leads collaboration and builds communities with the public, educators, developers, and international and state governments in using open government data. Jeanne is also the Chief Knowledge Architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, driving innovation through social media, virtual worlds, gaming, ontologies, and collaborative systems, including the award-winning NASA public portal (www.nasa.gov) and pioneering knowledge architectures within the US Department of Defense.
Data.gov is the largest Open Data Platform in the world. Initiated in 2009 with 42 datasets, the platform offered access to more than 500,000 datasets from different US Agencies until Friday 21st February 2014.
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