Most open data portals don’t look like labors of love. They look like abandoned last-minute science fair projects, pie charts sagging because someone didn’t use enough glue stick. The current open data movement is more than a decade old, but some are still asking why they should even bother.
“Right now, it is irrational for almost anybody who works in government to open data. It makes no sense,” Waldo Jaquith said. “Most people, it’s not in their job description to open data — they’re just the CIO. So if he fails to open data, worst case, nothing bad happens. But if he does open some data and it has PII [personally identifying information], then his worst case is that he’s hauled before a legislative subcommittee, grilled, humiliated and fired.”
Though perhaps it’s not immediately apparent, Jaquith is the director of U.S. Open Data and one of the movement’s most active advocates. But he’s also a realist. Open data is struggling to gain financial and spiritual backing. Open data may fizzle out within the next two years, said Jaquith, and a glance at government’s attitude toward the entire “open” concept supports that timeline.
The people who are really into open data — like Jaquith — aren’t the fad-following type. Open data’s disciples believe in it because they’ve seen that just a little prodding in the right spots can make a big difference. In 2014, Jaquith bought a temporary license for Virginia’s business registration data for $450 and published the records online. That data wasn’t just news to the public — it had been kept from Virginia’s municipal governments too. Before that, the state’s municipal governments had no way of knowing which businesses existed within their boundaries and, therefore, they had no way of knowing which businesses weren’t paying license fees and property taxes. Jaquith estimated (“wildly,” he admits) that this single data set is worth $100 million to Virginia’s municipal governments collectively.
The disconnect between the massive operational potential that open data holds and government’s slow movement toward harnessing it can be explained simply. Government thinks open data is an add-on that boosts transparency, but it’s more than that. Open data isn’t a $2 side of guacamole that adds flavor to the burrito. It’s the restaurant’s mission statement.
Here are six ideas that can help government more fully realize open data’s transformative power.
Open data isn’t just about transparency and economic development. If it were, those things would have happened by now. People still largely don’t know what their governments are doing and no one’s frequenting their city’s open data portal to find out — they read the news. Open data portals haven’t stopped corruption; the unscrupulous simply reroute their activities around the spotlight. And if anyone’s using open data to build groundbreaking apps that improve the world and generate industry, they’re doing a great job keeping it a secret. For government, open data is about working smarter.
“I’m tired of the argument of ‘Oh, it will unlock value to the private sector,’” Jaquith said. “That’s nice. I hope people make billions of dollars off of that. But nobody in any government is going to spend any real amount of time on all the work that goes into opening all the data sets on a sustainable, complete basis because some stranger somewhere might get rich.”
Open data’s most basic advantage is that it makes life easier for government workers. Information that’s requested regularly can be put online, freeing workers to do other tasks. At its best, open data uncovers interjurisdictional insights that save money and improve operations. And no matter how tenuous, peripheral bonuses like transparency and economic development are still there too. Governments aren’t gaining the benefits of open data today because there’s not been a rigorous effort to integrate the concept of openness into public-sector work.
One unnamed city that ranks respectably in the U.S.;