As CIO for the District of Columbia, Vivek Kundra helped usher in the era of open government by saying that he wanted to “democratize” government data – putting it in to the hands of talented people outside of government that could build useful things with it.
Thinking about the hundreds of civic hacking events that have taken place and the thousands of government data sets that have been released since the original Apps for Democracy contest kicked the movement off a few years ago, I think it can rightly be said that the original vision for open data has been realized.
More and more governments are moving to open up their data to developers and entrepreneurs, and making open data the cornerstone of their government transparency efforts. Large cities are starting to collaborate and think strategically about how to maximize the value of their data, civic app developers and entrepreneurs are networking, policies are being written, officials are being appointed.
But we still have more work to do to truly democratize open data.
The benefits of open government data to academics, journalists and developers are obvious. But why should ordinary voters, citizens and taxpayers care about a government’s open data program?
Open Data Begets Transparent Government
First, open data is a great litmus test for broader government transparency initiatives. I often see people invest lots of energy in making the distinction between “open data” and “open government,” complaining that others confuse the terms and use them interchangeably. This debate misses the more important point – the way to get to transparent government is through open data.
I look at government open data programs as a prerequisite for broader transparency efforts. If a government isn’t willing to invest the time and energy in building and maturing an open data program, then it’s fair to question the commitment to broader transparency. Put simply, government open data programs demonstrate the capacity for government transparency.
Open Data Fosters Innovation
Open data programs are also implicitly about partnerships – the whole point of opening government data and publishing it in easy to use formats is to help ensure that people outside government use it. In this way, open data represents a capacity to develop partnerships with innovation leaders outside government.
All governments are under pressure to do more with less, especially cities – so the idea that cities are starting to look for ways to exploit the creative capacities in their own communities is especially exciting. Open data makes this happen.
Open Data Powers Better Decisions
Most importantly, open government data has the power to directly impact our daily lives, providing opportunities to make better, more informed decisions.
Examples of this power abound (though we often take them for granted). The varied ways we can now consume data about the weather, transit and travel options and location are evidence of how open data can improve our everyday lives.
Think of how many more opportunities like this exist – how we might use data on schools & education, crime, day care facilities, restaurant and food inspections, etc. to make better decisions. They potential is staggering.
The open data movement has come a long way in just a few short years, but we have a long way yet to go.
Ultimately, if the movement is going to be called a success, then data released by governments needs to have a direct, positive, demonstrable impact on the lives of everyday citizens.
We’ve got work to do. Let’s get after it.
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