Why Does Your Organization Need Open Data?

January 24, 2014 3:00 pm PST | Effective Governing

Open data continues to grab headlines. From articles in mainstream business news outlets like the Wall Street Journal to leading Silicon Valley tech publications like Gigaom, open data is attracting popular press coverage on a daily basis.

Elected officials and technology leaders in the public sector are paying close attention to these pieces. Still, they are looking for more information to answer the question: “Why does my organization need open data, and why is now the right time to invest in this opportunity?” This article aims to provide the answers (yes, there are more than one) to that important question.

Quick Recap: What Is Open Data?

Learn More
To find out more about the basics of open data, check out these additional resources: Socrata’s Open Data Field Guide and this article from the Open Data Institute.

Before diving into the reasons for adopting open data, it is helpful to briefly revisit what it encompasses. In a previous article on this blog, I explained that open data involves freeing up valuable non-personal, public information and publishing it in standard, reusable, and contextualized formats on the web, so that everyone can benefit from it.

With this in mind, people are bound to ask: why hasn’t every government organization already embraced this approach and the technology that supports it?

It is important to remember that, over the last several years, agencies at all levels of government have had to make tough fiscal tradeoffs in response to shrinking tax revenues. So, it is understandable that some of these organizations have decided to employ a wait and see approach when it comes to open data. And, even in the best of economic climates, misperceptions about the cost, complexity, and time needed to get an open data initiative up and running have been a barrier to adoption.  

Now, as the economic recovery gains momentum, a growing cohort of public-sector leaders are taking a fresh look at open data. Many are seeing it as an opportunity to make better use of their organization’s data to increase efficiency, provide more responsive service to citizens, and meet the enduring mandate for greater transparency.

Why Does Your Organization Need Open Data?

Try It Out
Find out how easy it can be to launch your open data pilot program.

There are several distinct rationales for why governments should incorporate open data principles and technologies into their operations. And, as the market matures, there is ever-increasing clarity and consensus around the exact benefits of this approach. Below are just a few of the reasons why more and more public-sector leaders are opening up their data.

Transparency and Accountability Are Core to the Mission of Government
Governments are the stewards of a fragile, but vital resource—the public’s trust. When public officials are attentive to that all-important responsibility, governments run better and more work gets done. Ultimately, this means that elected officials, agency and department leaders, and others can have a bigger impact on the lives of the people they serve.

Open data provides a framework for building public trust by simplifying access to information about the kinds of decisions leaders are making, how budgets are spent, what programs are on track to meet their goals, and so much more. It is true that many local governments already have laws in place that stipulate the release of this information to the public. But the traditional method of delivery—paper documents or static PDFs that can be downloaded from a government website—are extremely cumbersome. In short, these mechanisms fail to provide the level of transparency intended by the laws themselves.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, California put it brilliantly in a recent interview with Gigaom:
“Each of us who have the honor of serving in a public agency … we get to try to move the needle forward and make governments richer and better and more open and more democratic. If communities of people don’t have access to the data they’re entitled to, that’s a roadblock to democracy and that’s not where we want to be.”

Open Data Improves the Lives of Citizens
In the U.S. alone, there are countless examples of open data improving quality of life. Wherever leaders have come together with their constituents to share public data, people have benefitted from more economic activity, greater freedom of choice, and a sense of ownership in civic decision-making.

The City of San Francisco provides a great example of this principle in action. The city’s early commitment to open data—nurtured by a desire to tackle operational challenges like processing huge volumes of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests—has led to a world-class model of citizen engagement.  Read more about San Francisco’s success with open data.

Open Data Is Good for Government, Too
By deploying the infrastructure for open data, governments can tap into an asset that has been enormously undervalued (at least until recently)—namely, the data they already collect and manage. The seminal 2013 report from the McKinsey Global Institute underscores that government can play an integral role in unlocking $3 trillion in economic potential annually from open data. Beyond this remarkable statistic, governments can leverage open data to improve internal efficiency by re-inventing processes. For example, the City of New York was able to radically improve the efficiency of its building inspection process by correlating and analyzing data sets culled from multiple agencies.

These are just a few of the many powerful reasons why governments should consider making their data openly available. Again, to quote Jonathan Reichental, CIO for Palo Alto, California, from his interview with Gigaom: “[T]his is not expensive. You don’t have to choose between a new ambulance or police car and open data. You don’t have to choose between surfacing a road and open data…the entry cost here is very, very low.”

I want to know what you think. Do you have reservations about implementing open data in your city, state, or agency? If so, what are they? Let me know on this blog or on Twitter @Socrata.

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