Open Data Beyond the Big City

This is an expanded version of a talk I gave last week at the Code for America Summit.

An uneven future

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
William Gibson. The Economist, December 4, 2003

The last time I herd Tim O’Reilly speak was at the Accela Engage conference in San Diego earlier this year. In his remarks, Tim used the above quote from William Gibson – it struck me as a pretty accurate way to describe the current state of open data in this country.

Open data is the future – of how we govern, of how public services are delivered, of how governments engage with those that they serve. And right now, it is unevenly distributed. I think there is a strong argument to be made that data standards can provide a number of benefits to small and mid-sized municipal governments and could provide a powerful incentive for these governments to adopt open data.

One way we can use standards to drive the adoption of open data is to partner with companies like Yelp, Zillow, Google and others that can use open data to enhance their services. But how do we get companies with 10s and 100s of millions of users to take an interest in data from smaller municipal governments?

In a word – standards.

Why do we care about cities?

When we talk about open data, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a lot of good work happening at the federal, state and local levels all over the country. Plenty of states and even counties doing good things on the open data front, but for me it’s important to evaluate where we are on open data with respect to cities.

States typically occupy a different space in the service delivery ecosystem than cities, and the kinds of data that they typically make available can be vastly different from city data. State capitols are often far removed from our daily lives and we may hear about them only when a budget is adopted or when the state legislature takes up a controversial issue.

In cities, the people that represent and serve us us can be our neighbors – the guy behind you at the car wash, or the woman who’s child is in you son’s preschool class. Cities matter.

As cities go, we need to consider carefully that importance of smaller cities – there are a lot more of them than large cities and a non-trivial number of people live in them.

If we think about small to mid-sized cities, these governments are central to providing a core set of services that we all rely on. They run police forces and fire services. They collect our garbage. They’re intimately involved in how our children are educated. Some of them operate transit systems and airports. Small cities matter too.

Big cities vs. small cities on open data

So if cities are important – big and small – how are they doing on open data? It turns out that big cities have adopted open data with much more regularity than smaller cities.

If we look at data from the Census Bureau on incorporated places in the U.S. and information from a variety of sources on governments that have adopted open data policies and making open data available on a public website, we see the following:

Big Cities:

  • 9 of the 10 largest US cities have adopted open data.
  • 19 of the top 25 most populous cities have adopted open data.
  • Of cities with populations > 500k, 71% have adopted open data.

Small Cities:

  • 256 incorporated places in the U.S. with populations between 500k – 100k.
  • Only 39 have open data policy or make open data available.
  • A mere 15% of smaller cities have adopted open data.

The data behind this analysis is here. As we can see, it shows a markedly different adoption rate for open data between large cities (those with populations of 500,000 or more) and smaller cities (those with populations between 100,000 and 500,000).

Why is this important?

We could chalk up this difference to the fact that big cities simply have more data. They may have more people asking for information, which can drive the release of open data. They have larger pools of technologists, startups and civic hackers to use the data. They may have more resources to publish open data, and to manage communities of users around that data.

I don’t know that there is one definitive answer here – there’s ample room for discussion on this point.

We should care about this because – quite simply – a lot of people call smaller cities home. If we add up the populations of the 256 places noted above with populations between 100,000 and 500,000, it actually exceeds the combined population of the 34 largest cities (with populations of 500,000 or more) – 46,640,592 and 41,155,553 respectively. Right now these people are potentially missing out on the many benefits of open data.

But more than simple math, if one of the virtues of our approach to democracy in this country is that we have lots of governments below the federal level to act as “laboratories of democracy” then we’re missing an opportunity here. If we can get more small cities to embrace open data, we can encourage more experimentation, we can evaluate the kinds of data that these cities release and what people do with it. We can learn more about what works – and what doesn’t.

In addition, we now know that open data is one tool that can be used to help address historically low trust in government institutions. It’s not hard to find smaller governments in this country that could use all the help they can get in repairing relations with those they serve.

How do we fix this?

There’s at least a few things we can do to address this problem.

First, we need more options for smaller governments to release open data. We’re not going make progress in getting smaller governments to adopt open data if the cost of standing up a data portal has the same budget impact as the salary for a teacher, or a cop, or a firefighter, or a building inspector – I just don’t think that’s sustainable.

Equally important, we need to work on developing useful new data standards. This won’t always be easy, but it’s important work and we need to do it.

open data standards tweet

For smaller cities without the deep technology, journalism and research communities that can help drive open data adoption, data standards are a way to export civic technology needs to larger cities. I believe they are critical to driving adoption of open data in the many small and midsized cities in this country.

We’ve already seen what open data looks like in big cities, and they are already moving to take the next steps in the evolution of their open data programs – but smaller cities risk getting left behind.

They next frontier in open data is in small and mid-sized cities.

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