Data is the lifeblood of civic technology.
It is the source of all innovation and advancement in civic tech, and is the basis for developing new ways of engaging with voters and taxpayers so that they may be informed about how government works and – hopefully – to help make it operate more effectively.
Without data, civic technology doesn’t work.
The good news is that more and more governments are opening up their data – adopting new open data policies and standing up new portals to share their data with the public (and themselves). This moves the needle on civic tech but, increasingly, it also highlights the single biggest challenge facing the civic tech community.
We lack well developed, widely adopted standards for data that will enable civic tech solutions to scale.
Almost 10 years on from the meeting of open government leaders in Sebastopol, CA that generated the core principles of open data, we still don’t have a robust collection of standards that allows new civic tech solutions to easily and efficiently scale across different jurisdictions.
To be fair, there are some standards for open data. And I can say – from personal experience – that a lot of work has gone into developing the standards we have today.
I was an early supporter of the Open311 standard and wrote several client libraries for using Open311 data – some going all the way back to V1 of the standard. I helped develop an open data standard for flu shot locations when I worked for the City of Philadelphia, and a standard for building permit data in my current job. I recently led a discussion on developing data standards at the 2015 Code for America Summit.
And yet, despite all that, I don’t think that we’re any closer to solving the data standards riddle that will allow civic tech solutions to scale across towns, cities and states in a lasting and impactful way.
The Open311 standard hasn’t been updated in a while, and the lead organization behind it no longer exists. The Open Civic Data project also appears stagnant, and the lead organization behind it is currently in flux. The LIVES data standard has seen some adoption, but now appears to be driven exclusively by Yelp with little or no outside input. The GTFS standard – widely viewed as the high water mark for open data standards – is alive and healthy and a fair amount of the current work on data standards seems focused on replicating the GTFS approach for new standards.
As a community, I don’t think we’re struggling with what kinds of standards to develop – I see some pretty broad consensus around the kinds of data standards that people are looking for. Instead, I think the largest open question on data standards is how they get developed. What organization(s) have the clout, impartiality and durability to bring together disparate interests and help craft a new data standard?
Governments, non-profits and private companies all have a stake in how data standards get developed – and each of these kinds of organizations has spearheaded at least one effort to develop a data standard. But I still feel like we’re searching around for the right model – one that can be used to craft standards that will be widely adopted, and that will be repeatable going forward.
If data really is the lifeblood of civc technology, then data standards are the key to scaling out civic tech solutions. I would argue very strongly that the ultimate success of the civic tech movement rests on our ability to develop widely adopted standards for open data.
Coming up on almost 10 years from that watershed meeting in Sebastopol, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.