The Internal Benefits of External Data

2013 was a big year for municipal open data, but I think 2014 will be even bigger.

Last year saw the development of an interesting dialog on open data – one that I took part in – focused on the proper goals for government open data programs. With their roots in transparency efforts, a growing number of people observed that open data programs seemed to be moving away from their primary objectives – making government more accountable – and gravitating toward other goals like economic development and promoting entrepreneurship.

And while this is a highly valuable discussion to have, I think an even more important discussion is brewing – a discussion about the role that open data will play in fostering innovation and change inside government.

I’ve touched on this subject before, but I think that open data has almost limitless potential to change the way the governments themselves work. In fact, I believe that nothing has the potential to drive more innovation inside of government than open data programs originally designed to share data with consumers outside of government.

The Bezos Mandate

Steve Yegge’s famous rant about Amazon.com provided some invaluable insights into how Jeff Bezos turned Amazon the book seller into the company that runs a large portion of the Internet. In a nutshell, Bezos told his employees at Amazon that services would be the way that different parts of the organization communicated going forward:

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
  2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
  3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
  4. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.
  5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
  6. Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
  7. Thank you; have a nice day!

    The idea that the service interfaces created and used inside the company had to be designed with the ability to make them available publicly has been a key to Amazon’s success. The relevant parallel for open data is that we are starting to see a similar trend emerge in governments that have mature open data programs – data and APIs created for external consumption are increasingly becoming valuable as operational assets for other parts of government.

    Bureaucratic barriers often prevent the free flow of information inside government, so it is often the case that what should be easy isn’t. Could we condition the denial of a permit from city government on whether a person has an outstanding tax liability, an outstanding parking ticket, a violation against a property they own, or an outstanding utility bill? Doing this requires querying data sets that fall under the purview of an array of different departments and agencies across the government footprint. It also requires the development of systems that integrate all this data and allow it to be used as part of a well defined process.

    Creating a Culture of Sharing

    There are at least three good reasons why open data helps enable these kinds of changes within municipal governments.

    First, open data programs make data discoverable – it obviates the need for special relationships or political clout to obtain data. Anyone and everyone can see what data is available for use, so few resources are spent hunting around for data and connecting with data owners.

    Second, open data programs make data more usable – they create incentives for governments to describe their data for people that are not domain experts, and to build services for easier and more efficient use of data.

    Third, open data programs create a “culture of sharing” within government. As noted in a recently released data analytics report from the City of New York - Aggregating cross-agency data is often first a political, legal, and cultural discussion. Whether created by statute, executive order or some other vehicle, open data directives send a clear message to the bureaucracy that data sharing is not only beneficial, but expected.

    Government open data flips the Bezos Mandate around by encouraging the development of service interfaces that are “internalizable,” and can drive innovation inside of government. By creating data resources (downloads and API) for external consumption, open data programs make data immensely more usable inside government.

    Frictionless Data Drives Innovation

    The many benefits to internal government innovation from external open data depend on how successful governments are in making their data useful to outside consumers. Data that is complete, updated, well documented and available via an API is more likely to be used.

    There are plenty of examples of private sector companies driving innovation through the use of APIs, and plenty of examples of governments that need to step up their game. We have a lot more work to do in order to make the use of government data frictionless.

    There is an amazingly powerful dynamic at work within properly constructed open data programs – the more useful we make open data for users outside of government, the more potential we have to drive innovation and efficiencies inside of government.

    The Internal Benefits of External Data

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