Making Open Data Useful

iStock/Filograph

Is open data a movement?

In recent years, more and more municipalities have opened datasets related to crime, public transit, health and other areas. And the Obama White House issued an Executive Order and established an open data policy for federal agencies earlier this year. There is obvious optic value of creating greater transparency at a moment when many are concerned about government secrecy and surveillance.

But the opening of data by the government has an added benefit: if presented in accessible ways, and if released by a responsive and trusted government, it can attract a constellation of actors capable of transforming the data into a meaningful community asset. These people might range from technologists to journalists to community organizers to ordinary residents. Together they can make open data valuable. Getting beyond transparency means engaging the public. And that effort to make open data relevant constitutes a new movement of civic innovation.

That’s the argument in a new book published by the Code for America Press earlier this month. Beyond Transparency is edited by Brett Goldstein, the former Chief Data Officer of the City of Chicago. Essays by civic innovators and observers from a wide variety of backgrounds -- including one penned by CCIP staff about the importance of local scale in helping to establish open data as a platform for a twenty-first century public square -- demonstrate the diversity of those involved in thinking about, using, promoting and improving open data.

Contributors to Beyond Transparency make a variety of points about open data. Case studies of cities as different as Asheville and Chicago show how open data policies can be adopted and made meaningful in different political environments, and in cities of different sizes. Community leaders show how they have seized on open data to improve their neighborhoods. Policy makers show how governmental leaders can use open data to make better decisions.

A few essays illustrate how all of these forces and actors can operate simultaneously to enact change in the way that government works and in how citizens relate to that government. That’s the case of former Code for America fellow and civic software architect and entrepreneur Joel Mahoney’s discussion of how civic technologists, in coordination with governmental officials, community groups, and ordinary parents used open data to demystify the process of school choice in the City of Boston. In doing so, they pointed the way for a major policy change in how schools were assigned.

Contributors to Beyond Transparency acknowledge that whatever successes open data has seen, there is a long way to go for it to fulfill its potential. Many point to the need for data standards and greater attention to the accessibility of data by those with little technological know-how. Often open data releases are undertaken to fulfill reporting requirements and without regard for the user experience. There is a need to engage the public in making use of the data. And the open data model must be scalable for cities of all sizes and with different resources.

Though there is still much to be done, open data looks very much like a movement that can build trust in government and enable civic innovation at the local level.