6 Ways Open Data Spurs Efficiency and Savings

May 26, 2015 9:15 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing

Quantifying savings from open data can be a simple math equation: release an app that reduces calls to 311, and calculating the savings is a problem an elementary student can figure out. Other savings due to open data can be harder to pin down. How much is a more efficient government employee worth? What’s the value in easy access to the bus schedules, or being able to research neighborhoods in a new city with the help of data on area parks, crime, facilities, and school ratings?

From the readily quantifiable to more nebulous efficiencies and savings, discover some of the ways open data saves money for government.

Reduce pricey 311 services: There’s no denying the popularity of cities’ 311 non-emergency phone programs. But perhaps, in this era of convenience apps such as Seamless and Washio, there’s something a bit dated on relying on the phone to do the web’s work. For questions that come up repeatedly—What are the street parking guidelines? When will the bus arrive? Is there a snow day for students today?—releasing datasets in a format readily consumable by the public can be a huge money saver.

How huge? In San Francisco, Chief Innovation Office Jay Noth’s back-of-the-envelope calculations revealed a savings of more than a million dollars for the City annually. (He tweeted triumphantly about the open data savings.) The experience was similar in Albuquerque, where providing residents with access to datasets on bus arrival time reduced calls to 311 to the tune of $180,000.

Decrease FOIA requests: Freedom of Information Act requests are essential to democracy. The problem lays not so much in the request, but in the required fulfillment time, from formatting to research. For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the volume of FOIA requests was understandably high, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. With the launch of an open data portal, sharing details about aggregated trace data on firearms, the ATF will save time for researchers and journalists, as well as staffers.

Save staff time: Knowing how to request data, and from whom, can be an everyday blocker for staffers. Julie Steenson, a Senior Performance Management Analyst for the City of Kansas City, describes how prior to open data “even internally, people would have a problem” accessing information due to “disparate systems, housed in different departments.” Releasing the line item budget online allowed “anyone can go out and access data on their individual program” and make decisions about expenditures for training or programs, comments Steenson.

And using Socrata’s open portal for research does not require extreme tech-savviness or elaborate staff training programs: for the Australian Capital Territory, a main part of the platform’s value is “how easy it is for non-technical users to transform raw data into highly contextualized information.” Samantha Mowbray, the Head of Policy and Communications for the West Sussex County Council comments that Socrata’s product “is absolutely beautiful…I think I still don’t understand the full capability of it, because I’m not very techie, but even I could use it.”

Ditch paper and PDFs: Paper, and its modern spawn, the PDF, are a sturdy and simple way to share information—but that by no means makes them the best option. As well as taking time to assemble, static reports quickly become dated, and both accessing the files (whether print or digital) and searching for information within them can be cumbersome.

Preparing a 150-page report on salmon recovery in Washington State cost the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office about $50,000 every other year—not including staff time. “I wanted to move to something less expensive, more frequently updated, and more accessible to the public,” says Kaleen Cottingham, the Director of the Recreation and Conservation Office overseeing the GSRO. And moving to web over print allowed the group to achieve this trifecta of goals.

Switching from paper to web offered similar benefits for the Oregon Marine Board: a regulation handbook published biennially cost $150,000 to produce, and was out-of-date before the two-year cycle was up. Their move to map the data online allows easy, real-time updating of the relevant information—and also makes gathering information easier, as well as saving the cost of creating the handbook.

Trim fact-checking time: Inaccurate information, especially on the Internet, can spread easily and can be difficult to refute. For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, one benefit of open data is providing easily accessible online details on firearms, making it easy for journalists and researchers to find accurate information, and fact check themselves (as opposed to the ATF needing to fact check for them).

And in San Francisco, the high profile reports on campaign and lobbyist spending from the Ethics Commission, required journalists to “collect the data on candidate funding by downloading PDFs posted by the Ethics Commission and tallying up numbers by hand.” Fact-checking questions to staffers abounded, as did arithmetic errors. Now that the data is published online, says Steven Massey, Information Technology Officer for the CCSF Ethics Commission, ” you direct them to the site and you’re done.”

Inspire ideas from the hive mind: Turning to the wisdom of the crowd can reap ideas that are both helpful and money saving. In Alameda County, an apps challenge attended by the County’s 9,000 employees led to the idea for creating an app to automate invoice. “The app has resulted in a new system that reduces the time required for verification from 40 hours to eight hours and has reduced scanning and storage costs by more than $500,000 annually,” reports the case study.

Digging into NYC Open Data allowed Ben Wellington, a NYC resident, professor, and quantitative analyst, who runs the popular blog I Quant New York—to determine that just two fire hydrants, due to unclear signage, were costing New Yorkers $55,000 a year in parking tickets. Wellington points out that the Department of Transportation was not intentionally making money from the hydrants; they were simply unaware. And that is some of open data’s power: “By opening up data to its citizens, the NYC government is getting free additional resources to improve services,” says Wellington.


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