Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Altitude Training for Data

The benefits of treating data like an operational asset are real, and governments that fully embrace open data stand to benefit the most.

When governments open up data that they make use of themselves to improve revenue collections and other aspects of their operations, its like training at altitude.

More Data Means More Revenue

When I worked as the Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, I commissioned an internal study that looked at properties in the city that had an outstanding tax liability that had been issued either a building permit or a rental license. (Data on outstanding property taxes are maintained by the city’s Department of Revenue. Building permits and rental licenses are issued by another agency – the Department of Licenses & Inspections.)

Altitude Training

This study found thousands of instances where one agency of the city was issuing permits and licenses to property owners that had an outstanding tax liability with another agency.

This kind of scenario – which costs the City of Philadelphia tens of millions of dollars – occurs when agencies do not make their data available for use by other units of government. The Department of Revenue currently does not make data on outstanding property taxes available in an open format – this means that Licenses & Inspections (or any other unit of city government) is unable to systematically check if applicants for a city service have an outstanding liability with the city.

In another example of how better data sharing between government entities can deliver value, Waldo Jaquith (Director of U.S. Open Data Institute) used business registration data from the State of Virginia and demonstrated how it might – if shared openly with all Virginia municipalities – support the collection of tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

The Value of Being Open

…[G]overnments that share open data with outside consumers lay the foundation for a different, equally important, kind of sharing – sharing data across government agencies.
Why Publish Open Data

If we step back and think about the two examples discussed above for a moment, as compelling as they are, they do not – on their own – explain why governments should pursue the release of open data.

It would be quite easy for government officials to point out that better sharing of data inside and between governments does not require sharing data publicly as open data. It could be very tempting for them to exclusively favor data sharing that is interagency or intergovernmental in nature.

This begs the question – for governments that really want to unlock the value of data, why is sharing information as open data important?

There are several reasons.

First, data transparency can help drive data quality. When there are many eyes on a specific dataset, and multiple users accessing it, any inconsistencies or issues with the data get surfaced quickly for discussion. See this thread on the City of Philadelphia’s open data forum for an example of how this works in practice. One of the best remedies for dirty data is transparency.

Second, when government data is released openly there are a number of very healthy incentives created by data users. These users expect data to be well documented and regularly updated – when this does not happen, governments typically hear about it in a very visible way. Data that is regularly updated, well documented and otherwise easier to use has more value for every potential user (including governments themselves).

Finally, governments that publish open data set themselves up to benefit from unforeseen partnerships and collaborations. As I discussed in a similar post almost a year ago, a commitment to open data make data discoverable – it obviates the need for special relationships or political clout to obtain data. Anyone and everyone can see what data is available for use, so few resources are spent hunting around for data and connecting with data owners, and more resources can be devoted to doing innovative things with it.

A commitment to openness makes governments better producers of data, and better consumers of data.

[Note – photo courtesy of Flickr user Robin McConnell.]

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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