How Open Data Is Good for Government

February 21, 2014 2:14 pm PST | Data Apps & Visualization, Data as a Service

By Tim Cashman


Recently, we looked at the benefits citizens can experience from open data initiatives. But what are the potential benefits of open data to government organizations themselves? Smarter data usage not only helps public-sector organizations deliver more responsive service; it can also help these organizations reap rewards like cost savings and substantial improvements in efficiency.

Too Many Data Silos

Over the past several years, governments have invested heavily in automating internal processes to increase efficiency. By and large, they have pursued this goal by implementing custom-built enterprise software systems. While individual departments may have been able to use data stored in these systems to streamline workflows, many government organizations now face the challenge of maintaining a myriad of difficult-to-use databases. As a result, the data that resides in these separate systems mostly sits idle. And, as the data ages, its value in supporting many important government functions declines sharply.

Reinventing Processes for Faster Problem Solving

Some government leaders have recognized open data as a unique opportunity to liberate public data from internal systems and make it easily accessible and sharable on the web. Embracing the potential of open data not only gives an instant boost to transparency goals, it gives governments the ability to analyze data in ways that were simply not possible before.

New York City offers an excellent example of how governments can combine and analyze large datasets from different departments to revolutionize the way they solve problems. In 2012, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wanted to put a stop to restaurants illegally dumping cooking oil into sewers.  Instead of approaching the problem the old way — sending scores of inspectors looking for violators — the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning dug into the data. They found correlations between geospatial sewer data and health department inspections information that led to a 95 percent success rate in tracking down the rogue restaurants.

On the other side of the country, San Francisco confronted a challenge faced by many other city, county, and state governments confront—handling the flood of citizen requests that regularly flow in for everything from sidewalk repairs to campaign finance information. Because the city previous logged its contact and case management information in different systems depending on the request, administrative staff spent hours every week manually entering data and searching for answers. Now, through its open data portal, which hosts hundreds of datasets all in one place, staff can find, report on, and share information with ease. This streamlined process means City Hall can focus more on direct citizen service and much less on technology.  Read the San Francisco case study.

Boatloads of Savings

Beyond gains in efficiency, governments can use open data to realize substantial cost savings. These savings can be accrued in a number of ways, including through the retirement of legacy systems and web apps, lower IT support costs, reductions in paper usage, travel time, and more.

The case of the Oregon Marine Board is a powerful example of how open data can trim operating costs. The Marine Board, a state-level agency, provides recreational boaters with a variety of services — from licensing to education and conservation efforts. Every two years, the agency updates its marine regulations handbook, which it makes available to boaters throughout the state. In the past, the Marine Board relied on a highly manual process for updating information about boating facilities along the state’s expansive waterway system. Producing the publication cost $150,000. More than that, it required months of legwork — literally. Staff would traverse the state, checking in on the condition of boat ramps and other infrastructure. Now that the agency routinely publishes data to its open data portal, staff can create and update maps and other supporting documents on the fly. In addition to slashing the cost to produce its biannual marine regulations handbook, the agency was able to eliminate the need for an expensive mapping system.  

Read the Oregon Marine Board case study.

The Power to Transform Government

The stories above are just a few of the many ways for governments use open data, not only to more effectively meet the needs of citizens, but also to make better decisions and manage more efficiently. These examples show how public-sector organizations — big and small — can transform the way they operate, simply by unlocking data from legacy systems and turning it loose to solve problems.


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