5 Habits of Successful Public Data Programs

August 29, 2017 9:00 am PST | Effective Governing

Five years ago, Montgomery County began its open data program, after an act passed requiring the county to publish all of its open data on a centralized site. Since that launch in 2012, the county’s data program has evolved — a lot. “What you initially start the program doing isn’t necessarily what you’re going to end up doing five years later,” says Victoria Lewis, the dataMontgomery Project Manager for Montgomery County, Maryland.

As Montgomery County has discovered, publishing data is often the easiest part of the process. Keeping the data portal current and ensuring citizens can find and comprehend datasets, can be tricky, but is also essential for success.


data montgomery portal


During a presentation at Socrata Connect, Lewis shared five habits Montgomery County adopted during their years operating an open data program.


Habit #1: Go Beyond Good Data 

For a successful data program, put a process in place. Lewis’s recommendation: Begin by determining how data gets approved. “Getting a handle on what data is out there, and which data gets published when, helps lessen the unpredictability and chaos you’ll find in the beginning,” says Lewis.  With every data-owning department, Montgomery County follows three steps:

  1. Flag data to publish
  2. Decide how often it needs to be updated to stay relevant
  3. Know who to contact if an issue arises

Annually, Montgomery County shares what public data the county has available, and what will be published in the upcoming year. “It’s paperwork with some bureaucracy thrown in, but it’s structure that we definitely need,” says Lewis.


“Getting a handle on what data is out there, and which data gets published when, helps lessen the unpredictability and chaos you’ll find in the beginning.” —Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery Project Manager 


Habit #2: Make Datasets Findable 

Publishing is just the first step — and, a relatively easy one. Residents won’t interact with data unless they can find it, and they won’t interact with it unless they can understand the terminology surrounding the data.

That’s why Montgomery County has a communication plan for every dataset that’s published: The Public Information Officer is notified, a link is added to the “what’s published” dataset, and an announcement is tweeted. The county pays attention to dataset metadata (such as categories and keywords) to help it show up in search results.


“Translating government-speak into understandable fields is how you add value and attract more data owners internally.” —Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery Project Manager


All fields are free of jargon, so that no insider-level knowledge is required to comprehend what the dataset measures and reveals. Not only does this make it more accessible to non-government users, but it also benefits internal staffers from other departments. “Translating government-speak into understandable fields is how you add value and attract more data owners internally,” says Lewis.


Habit #3: Set a Strategy for Sensitive Datasets

To prevent publishing sensitive data, such as a resident’s address or health information, Lewis says to document the dataset before publishing. Identify what can — and can’t — be published. Have legal and HIPAA experts review the dataset early on and flag their concerns.

Even with thoughtful and thorough preventative measures in place, mistakes can happen. That’s why Lewis recommends having a crisis management plan — think of it as your game plan if risks are realized. “You need a plan if you’re interested in something other than pulling down the data and never releasing it again,” says Lewis.


Habit #4: Have a Data Owner in Place for Every Dataset 

How will you know when a dataset is out of date? Each dataset that’s published should have an owner. This person is responsible for knowing when and how to update the data. An asset inventory can help you track what data you have, and when it was last updated.


Habit #5: Learn from Your Peers

All around you, neighboring governments are involved in open data.


“We’re not supposed to be competing. We’re all here to help residents and the public.” —Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery Project Manager


“We’re not supposed to be competing,” says Lewis. “We’re all here to help residents and the public.”  She recommends networking with peers in the open data world for tips and recommendations.


Watch the Full Presentation

For more advice from Lewis, watch her full presentation. Plus, Christian Hoogerheyde, a Product Manager at Socrata, shares how Socrata’s platform helps address some of these common challenges, with a look at features such as the activity log, analytics, and other admin tools.



Network with Peers at Socrata Connect 2018

Reserve your seat at the next Socrata Connect event, taking place in Austin, Texas, from May 16-18. As well as informative, thought-provoking presentations, the conference is an opportunity to learn from fellow governments working to launch and refine data-focused programs.

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