The Citizen Benefits of Open Data

February 14, 2014 10:35 am PST | Data as a Service
Hack for Change

Much of the original momentum behind the open data movement came from calls for greater government transparency. While a noble goal, transparency alone does not make a difference until citizens take advantage of it. To quote US Chief Information Officer Todd Park, “Data by itself is useless. Data is only useful if you apply it.”

Fortunately, in recent years, increased citizen involvement in open data has demonstrated the near-infinite ways that open data can be used. Here we highlight three beneficial uses of open data for citizens that have become central to the movement.


In a democracy, citizens are meant to be educated and involved in the workings of government. Attaining high levels of citizen engagement is not easy, though. With open data exposing real-time information about government programs in finance, crime, education, the environment, and more, the barriers to making a difference have been lowered.

Meet Derek
Read our interview with civic hacker Derek Eder in our Open Data Field Guide.

Consider an early contribution to open data activism. Chicago civic developer Derek Eder and his company Open City produced a landmark app called ChicagoLobbyists. It showed in real-time the highest paid lobbyists, firms, and who was paying them. All of this information came directly from the City of Chicago’s open data portal. The app intended to “improve the transparency of interactions between the City of Chicago and lobbyists and their clients.” 

In an interview for GovFresh, Eder noted that he was surprised by something after building the app: the Salvation Army had spent the most on lobbyists in 2010, $380,000. Eder even went to a public hearing in 2012 to advocate for more city data exposure, tweeting, “Heading to a public hearing for Chicago’s Ethics Reform Task Force to promote the value of #opengov and #opendata“

This sort of activism inspired by open data can be seen in other cities. Sandra Moscoso of Washington, DC is raising two children with her husband. She wants an easy way for her and all DC parents to understand what each school offers, including whether or not the school has a librarian. She won an OpenGov Champion award from open government advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation in 2013 for her work to get the District of Columbia to open up its public school data and make it more accessible to citizens. She and other parents have banded together to create the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization (CHPSPO) and are demanding changes that will improve the school selection process in the years to come.

New Business Opportunities

The emergence of GPS as an everyday tool for people is an everyday example of the economic potential locked up in government data. As Park said when he first accepted his role as US CTO, “There are a bunch of [kickbutt] innovators out there. Our job as leaders is to find those innovators and release their mojo.” He routinely hosts Data Jams and Datapaloozas, competitive events that encourage the development of viable business ideas and offer funding to help winning ideas come to life.

Also, existing businesses are taking advantage of open data to improve their products. Yelp now offers restaurant health inspection information in towns that make that data available in open, machine-readable formats, such as San Francisco and New York City.

Socrata Director of Open Data Ian Kalin spends much of his time talking to entrepreneurs in the open data market. He believes that the role of government is to help people reach their highest potential. Kalin says, “Innovators are transforming wholesale government data into products and services of real value. Government leaders can work closely with these entrepreneurs to find the solutions that the governments don’t have the time or resources to create. Plus, these businesses create jobs.”

Another group that supports economic growth through open data is nonprofit Code for America. They host an incubator program for “civic startups,” offering them coaching on business strategy, marketing, sales, engineering, and product development. The company Civic Insight, a product of the incubator program, offers data and visualizations that “help residents make sense of complicated processes like code enforcement and building permits.” It was born out of an effort to identify and improve blighted properties in post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans, via easier access to city data about their status.

Better Access to Government Services

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Chief Information and Community Relations Officer Gail Roper is a leading thinker on the “citizen experience,” or CX. She wants to use the latest cloud technologies to make government a 24/7, self-service resource center that offers citizens easy access to the data they need.

Roper admits that making information real time, easy to visualize, and to share means fewer calls to city offices, saving tax revenue and staff resources. But, she’s more interested in how this improved access affects the quality of life in a community. Roper says, “I believe that the culture of a city is impacted by open data and open government. This kind of culture attracts citizens that participate in government in positive ways.”

Other examples of thoughtful, service-oriented government leadership based on open data abound.

– In King County, Washington, home to the state’s most populous city Seattle, the Elections team provided the results of  their hotly-contested November 2012 elections in an open data app on the web and on mobile devices, including dynamically-created charts for the 90 races and measures before voters. On election night, the app received more than 236,000 views.

– In San Francisco, the Ethics Committee now updates campaign finance data automatically every night from the City’s open data portal. The result? Time savings, better accuracy in reporting by newspapers, and increased citizen interest in the topic.

Oregon’s Marine Board replaced the process of printing seasonal maps for recreational boaters with creating dynamic, digital maps that are fed by the state’s open data portal. Now, boaters can digitally access the water hazard and moorage availability information that is updated every 24 hours.

A Bright Future for Citizens and Open Data

With  open data becoming more widespread and mainstream in the coming years, bright minds, both inside and outside of government, will innovate with it and increase its use. This list of citizen benefits is sure to grow longer as governments release more of their very abundant resource: public data.

What are you thoughts on the citizen benefits of open data? Where have you seen people use open data to improve a community’s quality of life? Let us know on this blog or on Twitter @Socrata.

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