Thinking Outside the Portal

Plug and play

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jonathan Khoo.

The centerpiece of any government open data effort is usually a data portal.

Data portals host open data or provide listings for datasets, and typically include things like license information, data schemas, developer documentation and a host of other details aimed at making it easier for end consumers to find and use data. There is a great deal of variation in the degree to which government data portals succeed in making it easier for people to find and use data – some do it very well, others do not.

In some ways, an open data portal can simultaneously represent all that is right with a government open data program – all the potential it has for changing the way government works and how people interact with their government – as well as all of its limitations.

I am not unbiased in this opinion.

Recently, we’ve seen some really good examples of what an open data portal can be – chief among them is the recently launched DataUSA site. This site does an amazing job of making data more discoverable and more accessible for those without data science and developer skill sets. One of the people behind the site – César A. Hidalgo of MIT – wrote about the design approach used for the site here. It’s an important read.

Making data more consumable and more actionable is clearly an important goal of any open data program. Employing good design in building data visualization options and tools is obviously a big step forward, and much more work needs to be done on this front to help mainstream users find insights in government data.

But if we think about the ways that we might make data more usable and more actionable it makes sense to think about governments as the creator of these richer, more compelling visualizations versus government as the enabler of them.

If the data in government open data portals isn’t presented in a format that is easy to use and easy to draw conclusions from by non-technical users, how do we fix that? Is it the job of government itself to create these new views and uses of data, or are there intermediary actors that governments can rally to this effort? Where do these new uses of data live – on an external site, or within the portal proper?

And beyond this, how then do we quantify the impact or success of an open data portal? Is it on the number (or event the quality) of data sets published? Or should we base success on how data is ultimately used by data consumers? Is a data portal just the data that lives on the portal site, or is it the sum of all of the maps, apps and visualizations that use data from a portal?

More than anything else, the success of an open data portal rests with its ability to marshal the efforts of those outside government. Publishing open data is not exclusively about presenting a finished product accessible to any end user, but rather it is an invitation to a (hopefully) active community of users that should articulate to government which data sets they believe are most relevant and to inform the creation of data visualizations and apps that are most important to them.

There is clearly room to make open data portals better and more cost effective. But as we surface ideas and approaches for doing this, we should not lose sight of the fact that – first and foremost – an open data portal must sit at the center of an outreach and engagement effort.

When we start to view open data portals not as a static end destination for users, but rather as an important part of making the journey to a more engaged and informed community, we’ll see them really change for the better.

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