Government, Reborn: The Vision of Open Data

February 10, 2015 8:41 am PST | Data as a Service

The Socrata Customer Summit brings open data pioneers together to blaze new trails. In his keynote address, Kevin Merritt, Socrata Founder and CEO, welcomes innovators from all levels of government, as well as open data champions from universities, nonprofits, and major corporations.

Merritt celebrates the beginning of the end of, “the way things have always been done,” with a flashback to Socrata’s first big transparency venture, from back in 2008: tackling the opaque, exclusive world of presidential campaign finance data. As Merritt points out, revamping that data to an open format meant that, “all at once, ordinary citizens were able to see through a more transparent window,” with a clickable, filterable, searchable tool. The Socrata platform enabled citizens, “to see for themselves who was financing these candidates. It had never been done before in American political history.”

The Birth of the Government-Citizen Partnership

Starting in the mid-1990s, government, “did some of the hard work of getting critical information online,” Merritt explains, to deliver more data, faster, to more citizens. This fueled a public demand for even more data and for a market that delivered that data in more accessible ways. As people gained greater and more fluid access to government data, Merritt notes that the ramp-up in their insight powered their drive, “for a seat at the table and a share of the power.”

Jump in time to 2014. As Merritt points out, the longstanding one-way-street of government data delivery is ending; today, government is expected to be, “socially aware, interactive, and empowering – with its citizens, not at or to its citizens.”  

An Ecosystem of Information

Merritt offers a vision of government, open data style: instead of loading static data onto its citizens, governments can empower engaged citizens to shape government itself. “It’s about serving government up as a platform,” says Merritt.

Socrata sees the future of open data in two dimensions. The first requires wrangling the data itself – mash it up, categorize it, and standardize it. Then it’s ready for government employees and citizens to assimilate it richly into the services that populate our everyday lives, everything from bus routes to zoning laws. The second dimension involves developing vehicles for that assimilation. Socrata and its partners are working to open up the data for all, through new tools and interfaces. This includes two recent Socrata rollouts: Service Connect for 311 data, and a suite of financial transparency tools for government spending data.

The Power of Intelligent Federation

Socrata and its government partners see great opportunity in working across jurisdictions. “When you combine multiple data sets together from multiple data sources, you start to glean all kinds of new insights,” Merritt says. Federating data, not just between peer jurisdictions, but also among levels of government, whether municipality to state or county to federal, creates powerful, highly useful regional data hubs.

Then, thorny problems faced by geographically spread-out governments start to have to be solved only once, with solutions shared broadly and rapidly. The savings, and the freeing-up of time and broadening of scope for government programs and their employees, offers a compounding benefit to the public.

Powering the Economy and Communities with Open Data

Merritt expects open data to boost economies, with new industries emerging around government data. He predicts society-wide gains as government organizations utilize their own open data to access an enterprise-wide view of operations. He foresees civic engagement expanding, and lives improving, noting, “way more than government data for accountability or transparency’s sake – it’s about a better planet, better jobs, a higher quality of life and standard of living.”

Communities are at the heart of Socrata’s work, as the team writes software to enable real people to join together, in their jobs, their volunteer passions, at their coffee shops, and around their kitchen tables. At the same time, Merritt emphasizes, Socrata is, “proactively trying to foster a sense of community around open data.”

Socrata works to nurture a variety of communities, from citizens seeking an active part in government operations to developers building apps to deliver services previously handled by government. Socrata also seeks to empower the journalists and analysts who fight to illuminate civic challenges. In addition, Socrata engages with government open data practitioners to forge their systems and professional networks, as well as with the entrepreneurs who are creating new industries in response to that work

A major key to this community-building effort is Socrata’s Open Data Network, “a distribution channel, a destination website for open data, an apps marketplace, a community,” Merritt says. Heavily reliant on data science and machine learning, Socrata believes the Open Data Network, “will transform the way government works today to something that actually unites governments around their data.” Transforming a 200+ year-old industry takes teamwork.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring more videos from the Socrata Customer Summit. Keep checking back to hear from more open data visionaries about this movement that is reshaping government and revitalizing communities.



Previous Article
Effective Governing
Mapping Illness: When Immunization and Open Data Intersect

February 12, 2015

Next Article
Data as a Service
Big Mountain Data Aims to Change the World

February 5, 2015