3 Critical Areas Your Open Data Policy Should Cover

March 20, 2013 12:55 pm PST | Effective Governing, Open Data

You know open data is a good idea. But are all your stakeholders onboard? And if they are, does everyone know what needs to be done to make this initiative happen?

An official open data policy is one of the most effective ways to achieve organizational support and transformational change through your initiative. It makes sure everyone is on the same page about why you’re publishing data, who is responsible for what, and what data you are (or aren’t) going to publish.

Taking the time to thoughtfully put this information together in a policy is well worth the effort. It will provide direction for everyone who will be involved in making this work a success.

What should your open data policy include? The Sunlight Foundation has a living document full of guidelines for open data policies. While the possible line items in your policy can be many, in our experience working with various cities and organizations, we’ve found that good data policies cover three critical areas: 1) the organizational goals that this program hopes to achieve, 2) the data sets you will publish, and 3) the designated roles of each team who will help to complete the work.

1. Goals: Why are we taking on an open data initiative?

What does your organization hope to achieve with an open data program? One of the primary motivators is to deliver on the promise of transparency by providing data that shows how taxpayer dollars are being spent. Beyond that, the possible goals – and benefits – are many. They can range from better efficiency in handling public information requests, to increased innovation in the private sector in developing tools for citizens.

In Chicago, one city goal was to improve preparedness for winter storms. So, their open data program provided the data sets for web and app developers to build Winter Apps, a variety of resources to help citizens get ready for and cope with winter weather.Screen Shot 2013-03-20 at 12.27.05 PM

It’s important to be explicit about your purpose, so all stakeholders are clear about why they’re doing the work. Your goals should also be measurable. Do you hope to increase bus ridership or launch five new apps for citizens? Stating them clearly in your policy will help you demonstrate the success of the program later on.

2. Data sets: What are we (and what aren’t we) going to publish?

You likely have a vast number of data sets that could be valuable if included in your open data program. What should you plan to publish? Even if you’re starting small with a pilot program, your policy is a good place to state the scope you’d like to encompass eventually. Because transparency is a key component of the move toward open data, we recommend publishing as much as possible.

As an example, New York City’s policy is to publish all city data that doesn’t include personal information. That means all non-personal data should be “open by default” and published on their data portal. An “open by default” approach saves time in deciding what data should or should not be made available.

3. Designated roles: Who and what is needed to make this program a success?

You need a team of people to make this project successful. For example, you’ll need your chief executive to secure funding for this work, your communications officer to communicate internally and with the public, and IT people to connect with the developer community – just to name a few.

Open Data Team

Be thorough about listing all the contributions this program will need to succeed. And then be clear in this section of your policy about the expectations and responsibilities of each stakeholder. You may also use this part of your policy to create a working group to give all the stakeholders a forum to discuss their progress.

Examples of open data policies

Open data policies can look very different, depending on the organization they are developed for. You may find it helpful to look at some of the policies of pioneering cities like New York and Chicago. Both have official open data policies to increase transparency, further goals, and create economic opportunities for citizens. Take a look and learn from those who’ve done it already.


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