Keeping the Faith on Open Data

A few weeks ago at Personal Democracy Forum, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel discussing “Do’s and Don’ts” for civic hackers.

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The makeup of the panel was fantastic, and included smart people like Tom Steinberg from MySociety, Catherine Bracy from Code for America, Erie Myer from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and former Presidential Innovation Fellow Phil Ashlock. All in all, we had a great panel, and a very good discussion about civic hacking and open data – but something that one of my fellow panelists said has stuck with me.

Tom Steinberg remarked during our discussion that the open data movement, which started out focused primarily on increasing government transparency and opening the kinds of data sets that governments might be reluctant to release to the public, has come to focus increasingly on the release of operational data from government – things like bus schedules, parking meter locations, library hours and 311 service request details.

This same issue came up not long ago during a discussion of local government open data efforts at Transparency Camp in Washington, DC, and is often brought up in the context of the Open Data vs. Open Government debate.

I’ve said before, and I still believe, that in order to support open government we need to have the infrastructure and policies in place to support open data programs. Once we have the technology and policy mechanisms in place to support open data, someone needs to make sure that they are being used (at least in part) to provide greater transparency into how well our public officials are doing their jobs.

As someone tasked with the responsibility of helping to put those technology and policy mechanisms in place, I can say firsthand that there are some qualities of operational data that make these kinds of data releases more popular with both data producers (governments) and data consumers.

Civic Hacking in Baltimore

Operational data from governments is what is most often turned into apps. This is usually the data that makes hackathons work, and it is fairly easy to demonstrate to a government data producer the value of releasing this data. When we talk about making the “business case” for open data, we are most likely referring to operational data releases.

We can more easily tie this kind of data back to a specific objective or goal of a government agency. We can relate it to economic development efforts. While far from perfect, we can begin to quantify the impact of this kind of data release.

With data that is more purely about transparency, these things can be much harder to do. And for many of the actors in the open data ecosystem – particularly governments – this makes these kinds of data releases much less appealing. This means that transparency data releases can take longer to realize and require much more effort to achieve.

There are some notable examples of transparency data releases in the City of Philadelphia that underscore this point. First, the release of data providing details on complaints against Philadelphia police officers. This data set provides details never before released from the city about the specific nature of complaints against officers and details (including the location) of those making complaints. While far from complete, this data set provides some new insight into an issue that most police departments are reluctant to share publicly.

Another good example is a data set showing the geographic market areas used to conduct a citywide reassessment of taxable properties in Philadelphia. This data set provides insight into the methodology used by the city to conduct the property reassessment and in effect allows those outside city government to inspect the quality of the work done by the Office of Property Assessment.

In terms of sheer numbers, these two data releases are small when compared to the many other data sets that have been released by the City of Philadelphia over the past year. Yet both of these data releases required relatively more effort to get done – the relatively smaller number of transparency data releases belies their value.

There is a temptation in the open data world to evaluate the relative success of a government’s open data program based on the volume of data releases. I don’t think we have good metrics yet to capture how well (or not well) open data programs are doing on achieving more fundamental government transparency. I think we need them.

There is a strong case to be made that much of the operational data of governments is valuable and is appropriately released through open data programs. In some cases, this data allows outsiders to evaluate the job that government is doing – how close to the published schedule are the trains running? How long are 311 service requests open, and in which neighborhoods, before they are resolved?

But I also believe that government officials that are tasked with putting in place the infrastructure necessary for governments to efficiently share data need to be mindful of their duty to enhance government transparency. We need to keep the faith on open data, and stay true to the same principles that helped initiate the movement.

Chief Data Officers and similar public officials carry the dual responsibility of having to release data that helps make government work better, and helps make democracy work better.

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