Your Budget: from Fad to Foundational

March 19, 2015 12:46 pm PST | Data as a Service

Open data pioneer David Eaves grabs his audience’s attention at the Socrata Customer Summit. His shrewd, passionate talk invites open data workers to transform their work – and their budgets – into sustainable, imperative components of government itself.

First, Eaves walks people through a brief history of open data, tying its birth to Xerox’s release of the first photocopier. He notes the cultural shift around information accessibility that followed, as well as the sales figures: “from 1950-59, Xerox’s entire revenue was $12M in sales,” but “in 1968 that device has $1 billion in sales.” Eaves points out that even Google can’t replicate that growth trajectory.

Content Distribution, or Civic Revolution?

But Eaves characterizes that period as merely content distribution, and contends that even today’s open data portals continue on that track. He challenges his audience to go deeper, pointing out that if content distribution is all open data groups do, then, “at the end of the day it’s merely a very sophisticated and advanced photocopier.” He adds, “if that’s all we become, if that’s what all this is about, then I think we’re in real trouble,” in terms of long-term budget sustainability.

What Doesn’t Create Sustainability

Using his own company’s contracts as examples of open data expenditures, Eaves says, “We’re a five digit solution for a big city, a four digit solution for a small city.” If the only benefit detected from those price tags is content distribution, Eaves contends, then over time they may be seen as just another budget line item, able to be cut.

Eaves next cites an example of a negotiation he led between Canadian loggers and environmentalists. Using open data about logging, wildlife, and wilderness, Eaves helped the two groups achieve a progressive collaboration and a combined cost savings that he valued as, “easily in the billions.” But, he warns his audience, “even when you have a project this big, none of this stuff is a path to sustainability.”

Show Your Value 

The challenge, Eaves says, is in quantifying the impact. He warns his audience against falling into a trap of thinking of themselves as open data groups. Eaves explains, “the openness is the excuse to martial the resources,” to get to the data itself. Open data allows enthusiasts to pry open the door, to get in, “with the right values doing the right thing in the right way. “

Eaves believes that tech companies and government employees working in open data, “are actually systems integrators,” and need to see themselves not as sitting on top of government datasets, but as fused at the core. He points out that the majority of visitors coming to open data portals are from IP addresses within the government, because government data, “is most useful to public servants.”

Open Data Equals Efficient Government

Eaves says that open data is, “as much about business systems and IT architecture as it is about sharing data with the public.” He boils this down to two factors, beginning with ROI. Using what he terms a conservative estimate of hours spent by public servants searching for, securing access to, and sifting through closed datasets, Eaves concludes the savings in a given government entity could easily exceed its open data budget.

Second, Eaves points to the opportunity for governments to reassert control over vendors. He explains, “the real story is how interchangeable our products are.” He encourages government data workers to take charge, by telling vendors what they want to do with datasets, and requesting applications that deliver innovative solutions. “Force the market to feed you better,” Eaves says.

Beyond Widgets

“It’s all internal,” Eaves states. “We are systems integrators.” He frames the challenge as the need to create more flexibility, enabling increased internal use of data, and increased data analytics. Eaves reiterates the need to move beyond content distribution and customized local government solutions. “Ultimately you’re a checkbox on somebody’s decision on ‘how transparent are we being?’” Eaves notes. The goal, he says, is instead to become “infrastructure,” core to the function of government, so that “you’re a required spec in every single system that gets built.”


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