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3 Guiding Principles for Open Data in Government

I’m spending the day at Data Transparency 2014, an annual conference hosted by the Data Coalition that keeps the conversation on open data in government moving forward. This conversation is extremely multi-faceted. It’s barely 11am and we’ve already talked about budgeting, planning, IT, accessibility, security, and a slew of other topics that are related to open data initiatives.

Thankfully, Nick Sinai, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered three guiding principles around which we can focus data transparency discussions, not only today but in any future initiatives:

  1. Have a relentless focus on the users of data. Rather than focusing on the data you’re creating and opening, focus on the needs of the person who will be using it. The goal of open data is to be accessible and usable to the people who want it. However, that can only be achieved if you let the needs of the user guide your open data strategy.
  2. Be relentlessly iterative. Sinai admitted, “Even the best business plans don’t survive contact with customers.” Once you open your data to the public, don’t think your job is done. That’s only step 1. Step 2 is analyzing the successes and failures of that first deployment, in order to improve the efficacy of your data. Then, do it again. Re-release your data for testing. Ask for feedback. Improve it.
  3. Be relentlessly open. This was my favorite piece of advice from Sinai. After the DATA Act passed, there was a lot of attention paid to the regulated information that would eventually be released. That’s understandable, but it’s also missing an opportunity to move beyond the data itself, to open up government as a whole. In order to effectively transform and meet these new regulatory requirements, government agencies will need to be open with each other. Advanced agencies can share best practices and resources. On the other hand, agencies that need more assistance to meet standards will have to be open about their weak spots, and be willing to ask for help. Finally, all agencies will have to be open with the public, providing the kind of transparency that engages the public in this massive undertaking and solicits feedback.

This last principle is really the guiding force behind today’s discussions. Speakers from every branch of government are sharing their top practices, ideas, and priorities to open up data to as many people as possible, in the best way possible. Hopefully, this collaborative, user-focused momentum will continue beyond today.

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