How Open Data Policies Unlock Innovation
By Tim Cashman
The World Wide Web just celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday. In the years since its inception, an entire generation has grown up with the web, and helped to shape it. For these people, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are the norm for connecting with friends and family, browsing a universe of goods, and searching the world’s information.
Several trends made the Web 2.0 world we now live in possible. Arguably, the most important of these has been the evolution of online services as extensible technology platforms that enable users, application developers, and other collaborators to create value that extends far beyond the original offering itself.
The Era of ‘Government-as-a-Platform’
The same principles that have shaped the consumer web are now permeating government. Forward-thinking public sector organizations are catching on to the idea that, to stay relevant and vital, governments must go beyond offering a few basic services online. Some have even come to the realization that they are custodians of an enormously valuable resource: the data they collect through their day-to-day operations. By opening up this data for public consumption online, innovative governments are facilitating the same kind of digital networks that consumer web services have fostered for years. The era of government as a platform is here, and open data is the catalyst.
The Role of Open Data Policy in Unlocking Innovation in Government
The open data movement continues to transition from an emphasis on transparency to measuring the civic and economic impact of open data programs. As part of this transition, governments are realizing the importance of creating a formal policy to define strategic goals, describe the desired benefits, and provide the scope for data publishing efforts over time. When well executed, open data policies yield a clear set of benefits. These range from spurring slow-moving bureaucracies into action to procuring the necessary funding to sustain open data initiatives beyond a single elected official’s term.
Four Types of Open Data Policies
There are four main types of policy levers currently in use regarding open data: executive orders, non-binding resolutions, new laws, new regulations, and codified laws. Each of these tools has specific advantages and potential limitations.
The prime example of an open data executive order in action is President Barack Obama’s Open Data Initiative. While this executive order was short – only four paragraphs on two pages – the real policy magic was a mandate-by-reference that required all U.S. federal agencies to comply with a detailed set of time-bound actions. All of these requirements are publicly viewable on a GitHub repository – a free hosting service for open source software development projects – which is revolutionary in and of itself. Detailed discussions on government transparency took place not in closed-door boardrooms, but online for everyone to see, edit, and improve.
A classic example of a non-binding resolution can be found by doing an online search for the resolution of Palo Alto, California. Short and sweet, this town squire-like exercise delivers additional attention to the movement inside and outside of government. The lightweight policy tool also has the benefit of lasting a bit longer than any particular government official. Although, in recognition of the numerous resolutions that have ever come out of any small town, resolutions are only as timeless as people’s memory.
The New York State Handbook on Open Data is a great example of internal regulations put to good use. Originating from the Office of Information Technology Resources, the handbook is a comprehensive, clear, and authoritative guide on how open data is actually supposed to work. Also available on GitHub, the handbook resembles the federal open data project in many ways.
The archetypal example of open data law comes from San Francisco.
Interestingly, what started as an “Executive Directive” from Mayor Gavin Newsom later turned into legislation and brought with it the power of stronger department mandates and a significant budget. Once enacted, laws are generally hard to revise. However, in the case of San Francisco, the city council has already revised the law two times in four years.
At the federal government level, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 2061) and the U.S. Senate (S. 994) in 2013. The act mandates the standardization and publication of a wide of variety of the federal government’s financial reports as open data. Although the Housed voted to pass the Data Act, it still awaits a vote in the Senate.
The Path to Government-as-a-Platform
Open data policies are an effective way to motivate action and provide clear guidance for open data programs. But they are not a precondition for public-sector organizations to embrace the government-as-a-platform model. In fact, the first step does not involve technology at all. Instead, it involves government leaders realizing that public data belongs to the people. And, it requires the vision to appreciate this data as a shared resource that only increases in value the more widely it is distributed and re-used for analytics, web and mobile apps, and more.
The consumer web has shown the value of open data networks in spades (think Facebook). Now, it’s government’s turn to create the next web.