Yes, Even Your Agency Should Open Its Data

November 19, 2014 6:09 pm PST | Data as a Service

Four open data geeks meet at a bar. And they all agree “there aren’t enough open data success stories being told.” No punch line, because this isn’t a joke. It’s an actual conversation which took place after a recent civic hack night.

The group at the bar, which included a municipal chief data officer, an academic, and two private sector open data advocates, was talking about the resistance we sometimes meet when talking open data to government agencies and NGOs.

“It shouldn’t be that hard of a sell,” said someone in the group. “Especially, if we were doing a better job showing that there are real economic and social solutions being built on the back of liberated data.”

So, for my open data friends around the bar and across the internet, here is a list of five ways open data is transforming the business and social sectors:


Almost no data are more fraught with privacy and confidentiality perils than that of healthcare. Yet, numerous government agencies are doing excellent jobs of release cleaned up health-related data sets.

The FDA, for example, has partnered with a Boston-based company to release, MedWatcher. This app collects government data on reported side effects from drugs, vaccines, and medical devices. MedWatcher also allows member of the public to report their own adverse drug and device side effects to FDA. Based on the data from these two sources, people can also subscribe to receive updates on medicines or devices they may be using.

Consumer Protection

Along the same customer-notification lines as MedWatcher, WeMakeItSafer is bringing information on consumer product recalls directly to the public. By leveraging open data provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), WeMakeItSafer provides information about product recalls in a clean, reliable format that everyone can understand.

Consumers can sign up for the “Items I Own” service, which will check all selected products against CPSC recall data. If an item you own is recalled, the service will let you know how to fix the problem or get a replacement.

WeMakeItSafer is also helping manufacturers and the media communicate recalls more effectively. They offer several tools which allow other websites to install ready-made product recall finders, integrate recall news onto their Facebook pages, or develop their own apps using the WeMakeItSafer API.

Real Estate

Perhaps one of the most recognizable companies built on open data is the real estate marketplace, Zillow. Although its best known for its 10 million plus database of homes for sale, rent, and off-market sales estimates, Zillow, is in essence an open data company.

Since its launch in 2006, Zillow has transformed tax assessments and other local government data such as deeds, mortgages, and real estate transactions in comprehensible, consumer-friendly formats. The publicly traded company is working with municipalities and county governments to make more data openly available, including housing permits, code violations, community planning information, and crime statistics.

Human Services

Aunt Bertha is a comprehensive, free, online guide to human services, such as food, housing, healthcare, and education.

Through partnerships with governments and nonprofits, Aunt Bertha not online provides information on services available in a subscriber’s area, it cut costs for the service providers, by limiting paper processing through a configurable online application. The process pays real dividends for service providers by reducing paperwork and incoming phone calls. That means service providers can spend less time on administrative work and more time with their clients, which leads to more effective organizations and better results.


Opower works some of the largest utility companies to help customers better understand their own energy consumption. The DC-area company leverages open data provided the Residential Energy Consumption Survey and the Energy Information Agency to compare how people use power in their homes. Those data are then cross-referenced with other data released by the Census Bureau to compare energy consumption between homes of similar sizes and in the same neighborhoods.   

The energy reports created by Opower are included on customers’ utility bills. Based on just the provision of this information, people make more strategic decisions about their energy consumption, appliance usage, and heating sources. These behavioral changes have led to over $577,000,000 and more than 5 billion kilowatt hours of energy saved by Opower customers.



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