Open Data: Beyond the Portal

One of the most visible statements a government embarking on a new open data program can make is the selection of an “open data portal.”

An open data portal provides a central location for listing or storing data released by a government for use by outside consumers, making such data more easily discoverable. A portal also has value as a more concrete manifestation of a government’s intentions for open government.

Governments that have data portals as the centerpiece of their open government agendas make a public statement about the importance of data to being transparent and collaborative.

But open data portals are much more than just data directories or repositories – when implemented and managed successfully, they are also the centerpiece for the community that generates value from publicly released government data.

The community around an open data portal is a direct contributor to the success of an open data program – and this community includes both people inside government (data producers) and outside (data consumers – developers, journalists, researchers, civic activists, etc.)

This fact helps underscore some important considerations government officials should keep in mind when evaluating different options for an open data portal, and also highlights work that must be done beyond the selection of an open data portal to ensure the success of government transparency efforts.

The Community Inside

The process that is used to identify, review, release, update and maintain information in an open data portal – regardless of what kind of portal it is – is what turns the wheels of open government.

The internal community around an open data portal is made up of data stewards and producers inside government.

This community uses an open data portal in a very specific way. A subset of this community may be involved in the maintenance or management of the underlying software platform that supports the open data portal, but most will contribute data (or information about data) to the portal in some way.

But before this specific touch point, where internal community members contribute data to a portal, there is a series of decisions and actions that must be taken to decide which data gets put into a portal, and what format that data will take.

All governments operate under an explicit set of rules about the kinds of data that can and should be released for public consumption. But beyond this binary evaluation of public vs. non-public, there is a set of (often complex) factors that need to be considered:

  • Which data sets have a higher “value” relative to others? What should be focused on first?
  • What is the current state of the data – is it accurate and up to date?
  • Does it require meta information, to assist users in understanding what it is and how it may be most effectively used?
  • Where is the data currently housed? Are there any technical barriers that might make it difficult to stage it for public release?
  • What specific steps are needed to take data from a backend system or data store and stage it for public release?
  • Who is responsible for each step? One person? Many?
  • What is the appropriate refresh cycle for such data? Does it change often enough to warrant frequent updates?
  • What is the appropriate format to release a data set in? Should more than one format be used?

(Another good source of information for data producers to take into consideration are the 8 Principles of Open Data.)

The process by which governments work through these issues (and others) is the foundation on which a successful open data program operates. The process that is used to identify, review, release, update and maintain information in an open data portal – regardless of what kind of portal it is – is what turns the wheels of open government.

The work to develop this process (or set of processes) must be done regardless of which open data portal a government elects to use.

This is not meant to suggest that the picking the right data portal doesn’t have value, just that much work remains to be done to build a successfully open data portal beyond simply picking which one to use.

The Community Outside

[S]ometimes, selecting the right data portal can make building an external community around open data easier.

Governments must also work to build the external community of users around an open data portal – this external community will use an open data portal very differently than their internal counterparts. These users will be direct consumers of the data provided by governments, and may also provide ideas for new data to release and feedback on the quality of existing open data.

To properly serve the external community of users of open data, governments must ensure that the portal they select (or build) has the features required to interact with this community.

Providing a forum for discussion, feedback mechanisms, the ability to rate the quality of data and suggest new kinds of data are all important functions. There are a number of both commercial and open source data portal options that do each of these things quite well.

Selecting an open source alternative for an open data portal might be perceived as a daunting task for some governments. There are several well developed and (increasingly) widely used open source options, including (but not limited to):

One of the primary considerations for a government considering an open source option for their data portal is the technology stack used to build it. Often, a mismatch between the technology used in one of these open source options and the government’s own technology infrastructure may raise concerns.

There are, however, some great examples of open source data portals that have been implemented with the assistance and direct involvement of members of the external data community, many of whom are software developers. The OpenDataPhilly.org data portal is a god example of this, as are it’s sister sites in San Diego and Chattanooga, TN.

Leveraging a local community of technologists and developers to help stand up, manage and improve a government’s data portal by using open source software may be an effective way of engaging and building the external community of data consumers.

In this way, an open source data portal may have an advantage over a commercial offering – the external community of users is directly invested in the data portal itself, and have a way to contribute to it themselves and make it better.

Building the internal and external communities around an open data portal is important work that must be done to ensure the success of a government’s open data and transparency program.

Selecting a specific open data portal to use doesn’t de-obligate governments from this important, foundational work.

And sometimes, selecting the right data portal can make building an external community around open data easier.

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