Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Open Data Needs Champions

If you’ve spent any time on a subway platform or at a bus stop lately, you may have witnessed one of the great success stories of open government data.

All of those people checking the arrival and departure times of trains, trolleys and buses are consuming applications built with open transit data.


It’s a great example of how open data has changed (and continues to change) the way we use public transit, and the role of transit agencies in developing consumer-facing applications.

There is a really interesting post over on the Google “Policy by the Numbers” blog that examines some of the reasons that open transit data has had such a dramatic impact in places where it has been embraced (h/t to O’Reilly Media’s Alex Howard for the link).

The post is by Francisca Rojas, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Transparency Policy Project. It describes how open data has fostered the development of a new way of thinking about service delivery – both inside and outside of government agencies.

In just a few years, a rich community has developed around [transit] data, with visionary champions for disclosure inside transit agencies collaborating with eager software developers to deliver multiple ways for riders to access real-time information about transit.

There are some really important lessons that can be drawn from the example of transit data, that open data supporters can use in other areas to encourage both the release of open data and it’s effective use.

First, open data needs a champion within the agency or organization to evangelize the benefits of releasing such data. In the absence of such a champion, developing a process around the release of open data, and sustaining and growing this process over time, can be a challenge.

If you look at transit agencies that understand the benefits of open data, you will invariably find a visionary thinker inside that agency that does the yeoman’s work of converting people to the cause. This isn’t meant to suggest that transit agency employees (or other government employees for that matter) are hostile or resistant to open data – it’s just a different way of thinking about the role of government or transit agencies. A visionary thinker on the inside can dramatically improve the chances of success for an open data program.

A good example of such a thinker is Mike Zaleski – Director of Emerging and Specialty Technology at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Mike is a true open government leader, and has done great work in advancing the way that SEPTA thinks about open data and transit APIs.

One of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed at SEPTA that has resulted from Mike’s efforts is a change in the culture – my perception is that people are starting to think differently about SEPTA’s role in delivering information.

That’s huge.

Another important factor in the success of open data efforts is the relationship cultivated by the agency with outside software developers. As Rojas states in her post on the Google Policy by the Numbers blog:

What we have seen in our study of transit transparency is that local programmers have been the critical intermediaries, taking raw data and generating a variety of information tools that transit agencies could not have imagined on their own. For other open government initiatives to spark this level of innovation and public benefit, they must identify their audience of information intermediaries and foster those relationships.

This means that simply releasing data – standing up an open data portal and filling it with data sets – is not enough. Governments must reach out to developers and cultivate relationships with them. Developers play a critical role in helping stretch the traditional notions of what public service delivery is and can be.

Successful open data efforts are built around a community of developers and include strategies for building and nurturing relationships with developers. This development community can be seen as the external “champion” of open data – helping agencies understand how that most important ingredient (ata) can be applied in new and creative ways to help their communities.

Open data needs champions – inside and outside of government. Those of us pushing for more open government data need to help identify these champions, and celebrate their good work when we do.

Rock on, champions. Rock on!

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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