What Is Open Data and Why Do You Need It?

January 17, 2014 4:00 pm PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing
What is Open Data


With help from social sites like Twitter and all-day cable television news coverage, citizens are paying closer attention to what goes on inside their government. Now, more than ever, they know how well their elected representatives are living up to their campaign promises.  

Undoubtedly, public-sector leaders want to honor their constituents’ thirst for more transparency and more responsive government services. But they first need to be able to answer the question: how can I quickly and cost-effectively deliver on these goals?

A growing number of government entities have discovered that the answer lies in making better use of something they already have in abundance—their public data. These organization have embraced the fast-growing movement known as open data.

What Is Open Data?

Open data is more than a technology trend. It is a fundamental shift in public policy toward using high-value government data to make better decisions, lower operating costs, and deliver more useful services to citizens. It is rooted in the conviction that non-personal, public information should be freely available in a variety of formats—not locked down in government systems, where its value goes untapped. The types of information generally characterized as “open data” have the following key attributes:

  • Transparent as to the original source
  • Available in standardized and structured formats, so that they can be easily accessed, interpreted, and re-used
  • Machine-readable so that they can be automatically processed and accessed by developers through application programming interfaces (APIs)
  • Guaranteed to be freely available over time

There are a multitude of categories of public data that government organizations can share through their open data initiatives. Some common examples include crime statistics, budget allocation information, restaurant inspections, permits and licenses, and 311 data.

Want to find out more? Download Socrata’s Top Datasets for US Cities

Who Is Adopting Open Data?

While it is taking hold around the world, many of the most notable open data success stories are unfolding in a relatively small group of countries. According to the Open Data Institute’s 2013 Open Data Barometer research report, the U.S. ranks second to the U.K. overall (among a group of 77 countries) in terms of the proliferation of open data programs and the availability of government datasets across a broad range of categories. Rounding out the top five are Sweden (3rd), New Zealand (4th), and Denmark and Norway (joint 5th).

The remarkable vitality of open data in the U.S. is reflected in the report. To date, 13 of the 50 U.S. states and more than 40 cities nationwide have official public data sites. This list includes some of the most prominent and successful open data programs in the world, like the one in New York City. Featured in countless popular and technical media publications, New York City’s data-driven approach to government is recognized worldwide as a model for what is possible through the use of open data. New York City’s experience offers invaluable lessons for any government leader on how to use readily available administrative data – from building inspection reports to traffic pattern analysis – to save time and money, all while improving the lives of residents.

Follow the Leaders: Start Small and Build to Success

Even after being convinced that open data has inherent value, some public-sector executives get stuck when it comes to figuring out exactly how to get started. At Socrata, we have learned that it does not matter as much where you start, as long as you start. Some of the earliest adopters of open data, including the United Nations Development Programme started their initiatives by publishing a single dataset.

Further, in a recent interview with McKinsey & Company, Tim O’Reilly – founder of O’Reilly Media and a leading proponent of open data – stated that one of the biggest advancements that government organizations can make right now is to bring a more agile approach to the programs they manage. By freeing up access to the data they already manage, government agencies can gain important insights that ultimately enable them to better perform their core mission.

Find out more. Read the 2016 Open Data Benchmark Report.

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