What’s the Link Between Open Data and Open Government?

September 13, 2013 8:00 am PST | Effective Governing

By Ian Kalin


The White House has a new Deputy Chief Technology Officer. Nick Sinai, hailing from the divergent worlds of Venture Capital and Federal bureaucracies, follows in the footsteps of Beth Novak and Chris Vein to assume the dual roles of leading the U.S. government’s “Open Data” and “Open Government” initiatives. These may seem like an unusual pairing, like asking “What do food labels and the global positioning system have to do with the functions of a democracy?”

Transparency Is the Link

The core link between #opendata and #opengov, using the Twitter parlance, is public transparency. A recent blog post from Microsoft, “Open Data, Open Arms: Welcome to the Era of Transparent Government,” speaks to this connection.

When a government shares information, there is a natural response whereby citizens can hold elected officials and public service agencies accountable.  This basic concept of accountability exists in the commercial aspects of our lives.  When we buy something from Wal-Mart that doesn’t work, we return it; and if we don’t like the price, we check out Target. 

But when it comes to government services, we don’t really have alternatives.  In general, that is a good thing for government services. I’m not sure any of us would be happy if fire departments disappeared during bad economic times. But if a government is going to have this natural insulation from market forces, then it is an absolute imperative that transparency mechanisms exist so that citizens can leverage their “buying power” and push back when they are receiving poor customer service. Transparency begets accountability and is a required ingredient in both open data and open government.

Beyond the processes, the tools used to deploy open data and open government are mutually enforcing.  Modern technologies are improving the quality of democracy.  Examples abound in the book from Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, “Citizenville.” Two that I have personally witnessed were the uptake in online voter registrations and events where minimum-wage workers were able to provide feedback to government hearings via text messages so that they could have their voices heard without sacrificing income.  The breadth and depth of public information disclosure through the internet and mobile technologies has transformed concepts like open data and open government.  Open data is as old as the first library and open government is as old as the first government protester.  However, the change in scale has become a change in kind.

At the fringe, there are also some fun connections between open data and open government in terms of the actual data sets that are being consumed.  For example, one of the most popular open datasets from the White House is its visitor log.  A list of names is normally not that interesting; but in this case what’s really intriguing is the possibility of corruption.

At the city level, the most popular open data sets are often those items that have dollar signs ($).  Mandatory lobbyist disclosure forms, freedom of information act (FOIA) disclosures on contracts, and even basic budgeting data are fact-based reflections of a government’s values. In a well functioning government, these values are shared by the residents.

There is a natural connection between open data and open government.  If you’re interested in telling Nick Sinai your own ideas about how to better integrate the two, the White House has an open call for feedback on the country’s National Action Plan.  Submissions are due by September 23, 2013.

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