Why Publish Open Data?

I get this question a lot, particularly from government officials who may still be skeptical about the real benefits.

And though I feel like I’ve made the open data pitch a thousand times before, working in city government for the past year has focused me on the practical aspects of this question. What are the real, practical benefits that accrue when governments release open data?

Here are three that I think are important.

First, releasing data in open formats can dramatically reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to respond to open record / FOIA requests. For some government agencies, responding to these requests takes a non-trivial amount of time – particularly if they are not done in a coordinated fashion. I’ve witnessed agencies first hand manually work through open records requests for the exact same data over and over and over. This makes no sense, especially if the data has already been deemed public and suitable for release. Publishing frequently requested data in an open format allows people to self serve, and preserves internal staff time for more pressing needs.

In addition, if your city, county or state government only maintains data publicly as part of a web document or web site there is a good chance it is being scraped. My experience is that this happens much more frequently than most government employees think. Scraping can cause undue burden on your IT infrastructure and undue stress on your IT staff that may be tasked with trying to troubleshoot issues caused by scrapers gone wild.

Second, when governments release data apps happen. We’ve seen this happen with our data releases in Philadelphia, and examples of useful and valuable apps built on open data abound. The potential for app development is greatly increased when there are standards that different governments can adopt – some good examples are GTFS and Open311, and there are developing standards around traffic data, restaurant inspections and facilities that dispense inoculations against infectious diseases.

Governments that release open data can leverage both their local developer communities and the efforts of developers elsewhere to bring useful apps to their citizens.

Finally, governments that share open data with outside consumers lay the foundation for a different, equally important, kind of sharing – sharing data across government agencies. In Philadelphia we are seeing a number of potentially valuable opportunities surface for different city departments to improve their operations by sharing data originally meant to be shared with outside developers.

Cities – big ones especially – are notoriously complex and stovepiped. In Philadelphia, the department that grants property tax exemptions is different than the one that collect property tax payments. What if we could condition the granting of exemptions on whether a property owner was current on their tax payments? Sounds simple, yet because of bureaucratic complexity it often is not. Open data can help correct this, particularly if it is structured for easy use by outside developers as an API.

Because Philly has been at this (both formally and informally) for a few years now we’re starting to identify opportunities to share data across different government entities that serve the city. We’re in discussions with our local gas utility to provide them with property data from our Office of Property Assessment so that they can verify their account information. In return, we hope to get data on utility accounts that see lots of turnover (suggesting renters moving in an out) and match it against our database of rental licences – this might be a nice revenue enhancement opportunity. The possibilities are worth spending time thinking about.

We’re in the early stages of seeing internal operational efficiencies grow out of our open data efforts, but we’re here now because we got started with releasing open data to outside users and civic hackers.

Any government that wants to start down this road will quickly start to see the benefits. They just have to get started.

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