Open Data as a Platform

May 21, 2011 7:36 am PST | Effective Governing

The visionary Tim O’Reilly first coined the term Web 2.0 and later focused his thoughts on the public sector, suggesting that a more open, collaborative and participatory form of e-Government is Government 2.0. Tim followed those thoughts with the idea that for government to really be effective and harness the Web 2.0 goodness of Government 2.0, government needed to redefine itself as Government as a Platform. Instead of citizens treating government like a vending machine, government should get into the platform business so that government could better serve citizens and citizens and civic-minded developers could serve themselves and serve others by extending the platform.

The power of Open Data as a platform, adopted institutionally across the federal government, provides enormous benefits to agencies. These benefits include direct cost savings agencies will recognize due to economies of scope and self-service. Only when the agency’s mindset of Open Data shifts from one of compliance to one of enablement will they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of publishing their vast troves of data. It’s simple psychology. Make it easy and beneficial to share their data and they will do it.

The value of Open Data as a platform dwarfs the value of a data catalog or data portal. Understanding the difference is important and foundational to understanding the return on investment (ROI) of public data disclosure.  Within the realm of technology, a platform provides an environment that allows applications to be developed and operated. By contrast, a portal is a point of access, which fundamentally lacks innate platform characteristics. At the foundation of a platform are application programming interfaces (API).  These API allow civic developers to programmatically access the data and develop value-creating applications. Data decays. Its value diminishes as it decays. An Open Data Platform’s API also allows agencies to ensure that public data is as current as necessary to provide optimal value to the consumers of the data.

Open Data platforms simultaneously represent a technology and a cultural innovation. When governments embrace Open Data, they also embrace and apply its potential to modernize how they deliver information and services. Open Data is about liberating data from antiquated stove-piped systems and cordoned applications. Open Data is about approaching information – tabular data, geospatial data, unstructured content and real-time data from transactional systems – as a strategic asset that needs to be deployed and reused across government and out to constituents much more cost effectively. It’s about leveraging modern platforms to manage the flow of information and enable services to be deployed rapidly and inexpensively. Today, billions of dollars are spent on maintaining fragmented channels, redundant interfaces, unnecessary infrastructure and armies of consultants building custom one-off applications to disseminate and share information within government and with citizens. Open Data is a cultural change that questions the viability of this prevailing model and provides a platform-oriented alternative based on ubiquitous access, reusability, consumption optimization and social enrichment.

The federal government wastes billions of IT dollars annually by failing to economize on the overlap in scope across programs. A greater than 100X return on investment in direct Federal IT spending through economies of scope is achievable by equipping agencies with an Open Data platform that is the shared foundation for numerous programs that are independently funded today. There are thousands of thinly veiled data sharing applications across the government, which share very similar characteristics – a database of information which is displayed visually through a web interface. By recognizing the overlap in scope and by providing agencies with an Open Data platform, the cost of these programs can be reduced significantly.

Many agencies operate call centers wherein the most common question fielded is the location where a specific service is provided. By making this data location aware and accessible by phone, many of these calls can be handled for a fraction of the cost, while providing better service to citizens. An Open Data platform allows for data to be cost effectively geocoded and made accessible by text messaging and automated, unattended interactive voice response, improving service delivery while reducing costs.

Sunlight Foundation co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller will tell you, and I agree with her, that the government has far more data than it discloses. I envision a day before too long when literally millions of datasets will be available practically in real-time as the data is produced and/or collected. There are a number of complicated reasons as to why the government has to date only published a handful of largely static datasets. You can boil all of these complicated reasons down to this: there is too much friction in the data publishing process. For Open Data to succeed we need to remove the friction. An Open Data platform benefits agencies in the cost effective delivery of the core services that support their programs and missions. That attracts agencies to participate in the first place, but as importantly it also provides the necessary infrastructure for the efficient, friction-free delivery of their data to other agencies, citizens and civic-minded developers.  Open Data as a platform is a win/win: by equipping agencies with an Open Data platform they become empowered and enabled to share data in earnest through the incentive of better, more cost effective delivery of services to their core constituents in support of their own agency programs and missions.