If You Build It, They Will Come: How Open Data is Changing Government for the Better


At the end of every significant relationship in our lives comes a period of reflection. People tend to run over the milestone moments of a relationship and either gnash one’s teeth over them or spend a few moments in fond recollection. For the federal government, we are in the middle of a special time that occurs every four years – the nostalgic period where we look back over a President’s administration and either cheer or bemoan the successes of that time.

One of the hallmarks of the Obama legacy in my opinion will be his support of the use of open data in government. A commitment to open data has been the driving force behind so many of the Obama Administration’s priority initiatives: Data Driven Justice; Precision Medicine; a National Transit Map and the Opportunity Project to name just a few.

When it comes to the idea of open data in government, I am one of its greatest fans. Here are a few of my top reasons open data is the best thing to happen to the government since federal holidays:

  • Data Becomes Actionable: The true value of opening government data lies in how agencies and the public put it to use. If open data isn’t actionable, then government is just checking a box. Providing access to data is an important first step, but if information can’t be shared in a way that makes sense and is understood by the public, it isn’t doing anyone any favors. The myriad of apps and websites that have sprung up based upon data that is readily available, and for free, is very encouraging, and I hope it continues to grow.
  • Brings issues to light: For data to be useable, it must bring issues into context, engage the public, and improve transparency. By accessing information, people can compare different factors and see relationships within the data. It’s powerful when people can compare school districts, crime statistics or employment ratings in different areas. Let’s keep sharing data so everyone has the capability to take responsibility for their own decisions.
  • Empowers the public: When the government shares information that was used in any decision-making process, everyone wins. Our leaders’ intentions can be more clearly conveyed and the public is empowered to create more informed and constructive responses. Open data initiatives have done this. They have brought a wealth of public data to the web, which allows both the government and the people it serves to share a common vision.
  • It’s a Two Way Street: Now batten down your hatches, guys, ‘cause this is where it gets really exciting. While the original thought behind opening this government-collected data was more along the lines of transparency in government, something amazing happened: citizens realized that not only was there data they wanted to receive from their government, but there is data they want to share with their government. Now, crowdsourcing apps are gaining traction in government, with users sharing information they collect directly with their government – city, state, and Federal. The level of engagement this enables is truly amazing.
  • We’ve Only Just Begun: One of the most exciting parts of this open data journey is that we are only at the beginning. Once you begin applying open data to a set of problems/issues/situations, there is a chain reaction where one can see the value proposition in applying those same data sets to other situations. To be honest, if you had told me eight years ago that we would be experiencing this amount of citizen engagement and two-way data communication in the Federal government, I would not have believed you. When it comes to open data – the best is yet to come.

I know that U.S. CTO, Megan Smith, has indicated her belief that technology will continue be a mainstay of Federal priorities regardless of who is ultimately successful on November 8. I, for one, am hoping we as a government will soon be reflecting with excitement on the open data successes of our next President’s First 100 Days!

Jeff Peters is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Susie Cambria

I would love to believe this is true… but without some solid evidence, open in many ways is just a dream and worse, a distraction from making necessary improvements in government service delivery.

For example, you write “The myriad of apps and websites that have sprung up based upon data that is readily available, and for free, is very encouraging, and I hope it continues to grow.” But is the goal the creation of apps or the improved delivery of services?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for open data, use of data to inform change, and technology generally. But I’m more for people getting what they need and government doing what it’s supposed to do, technology or not.

Jeff Peters

Your concerns are valid, and 1-2 years ago I would have agreed with you: data’s role in government was much more theoretical than practical. The opposite is true now though, and I see examples of it everyday. The prevalence of and thoughtful application of big data in government is still in its infancy, but it is becoming impactful. Baby steps.

Joseph Elfelt

Good news: There is a vast and growing amount of open data available on government GIS (Geographical Information System) servers. These servers are operated by many federal agencies, all of the states and many counties, cities and other governmental bodies.

One of the best things about displaying data directly from a GIS server is that each time you open the map you are getting the freshest data available to the public. By contrast if you are looking at data that was first exported from the server and saved in a file, then that data is frozen in time as of when the file was created.

Bad news: This open GIS data cannot be seen by the vast majority of people unless someone with specialized technical skill has produced a map that displays a specific portion of this data.

I am a software developer in the field of online maps and am working to lower the bar of entry so more people can more easily view more of this open GIS data. No, this is not a commercial plug. I am doing this work pro bono as part of my way to “pay it forward” and besides, I am a big fan of open data.

Gmap4 is an enhanced Google map viewer that I developed. Gmap4 is a browser app (not a native app) that can display most of the open data that is hosted on *any* GIS server and do so using the familiar Google map interface. Gmap4 senses the type of device you are using and displays a mouse interface on desktop/laptops screens and a touch-friendly interface (with geolocation) on mobile screens.

Q: How easy is it to display GIS data with Gmap4?
A: You only need two pieces of information: (1) the link that points to the location of the data on the GIS server and (2) the number of the data layer you want to display.

For example, the following map displays the Google street map plus an overlay of GIS data that shows stream gages. If you click a stream gage then you will see a popup with all the attribute data the GIS server has for the thing that you clicked. That attribute data includes a link to a nice graph.


To find out how to make Gmap4 links that display the GIS data that *you* want to see, please go to the Gmap4 homepage and then click the “GIS Viewer” tab. Note that the bottom of the GIS Viewer page has links to more information.
Gmap4 homepage: https://mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.html

Finally, to see a bunch of Google/GIS maps I produced that mostly focus on recreation and emergency information, please visit:
To see the map legend and get tips for using the map, click “About this map” in the upper left corner of any map.

Happy mapping!