How do governments harvest the greatest value from open data?
That’s the predominant question posed by the civic tech community as officials, entrepreneurs and nonprofits pioneer the movement’s next chapter. Those familiar with open data know what started as an initiative for transparency has quickly evolved into a quest to leverage apps and analytics to enhance decision-making, services and citizen engagement. Success stories on these fronts are many. Civic hackers have created apps to plan bus routes, boost participation in politics, map emergency resources and even to track school buses for parents.
“What we see today is that the real innovation is not necessarily coming from hackathons, but now it’s about working with companies or entrepreneurs to solve problems,” he said.
“When thinking about biggest impacts, it’s clear that open data sites, per se, are not the place where most people will end up going,” May said. “It’s more the APIs that we provide — Junar, Socrata, etc., — that deliver this open data to citizens through apps.”
There are many ways to quantify the next wave of open data: what they’ll be, how they’ll be used and the various sources supplying them. However, Safouen Rabah, Socrata’s vice president of products and services, envisions next-gen open data selection to be a highly singular process for every jurisdiction.
“The most important mind shift that government leaders can make is to stop thinking about open data as a project they do on the side and start thinking about how they can use data strategically to solve the problems they — and their constituents — care about,” he said.
For this to happen, city leaders need to stop thinking of data as a byproduct of services, and instead view it as a public utility or a commodity that drives government services. This might mean ensuring every city or department data source is fitted with its own API to channel their select datasets, just like a diverting valve might redirect water. This, Rabah said, applies both to private internal data and public data.
“When you talk to cities that are 'state of the art' — or cities that really want to engage in innovation — our answer and their proposition is to bring in real-time data,” May said.
Real-time data apps, equipped with an API, can push data immediately to users, compared to the slower, less dynamic approaches used by most governments. Past examples are parking, permitting and performance analytics. Another value driver: open data that can be mapped and visualized. Mapping and GIS data, according to May, can provide a visual narrative to interpret open data and make it more desirable.