GovBytes: Open Data – Necessity or Novelty?

Open data is probably more interesting to GovLoopers than the average citizen. That’s understandable; most data-sets aren’t helpful to everybody. For instance, checking out Data.gov, I see raw data-sets concerning the marital status of active-duty forces, the location and characteristics of the worlds copper smelters, and data regarding the surface-temperature of land at night. For me, and probably most of you, this is all largely useless information.

Some are using that to argue that open data initiatives are cool, but largely irrelevant. I beg to differ. While this information may not be useful to me now, if I was writing a report on the effects of active-duty service on families, certain data-sets, such as the one listed above, could prove very valuable. Further, open data is used to create accountability in government.

Special Report: Can Governments Keep Up Their Open Data Initiatives?

In California, for example, a city manager in one local district had an annual compensation package of over $1.5 million. After this was found out about — and a protest occurred occupying City Hall — California made it law that all city and county governments report employee salaries, which are then posted online.

In 2011, the budget for Data.gov was cut by 75 percent. To me, this is a step in the wrong direction. Open data should be looked at as an investment in keeping government efficient and accountable. I would be interested to look at California as a case study and see a cost-benefit analysis of the law regarding government employee salaries. I bet an effective open data program saves more taxpayer money than it spends, and helps industry such as reporters and academics in need of these data sets.

But enough about me. What do you think? Is open data beneficial enough to justify the expense?

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Profile Photo Chris Cairns

It’s too expensive unless the investment can be measured in terms of return on value. You’re point is well taken. You can’t discount all the potential uses for data. But we need a way to know how the public is benefiting. Did opening the data lead to some research breakthrough? Or new insight into social patterns that leads to useful services or products?

Profile Photo Corey McCarren

Case studies do exist showing the value of open data. Admittedly I only spent about 20 minutes glazing it over, but I found this analysis particularly compelling, though it is based on Australian agencies.

http://ands.org.au/resource/houghton-cost-benefit-study.pdf

I may be slightly biased, having encountered the roadblocks of needing access to data-sets which are unattainable because of their direct cost to myself or the company I work for. I think if the data exists, there is probably an innovator who has a use for it. Maybe to discover untapped markets.

Profile Photo Henry Brown

The key issue (IMO) is benefits who! and @Chris says you can’t discount all the possible uses for data. …

Do we as a society want to insure that only the 1% (not talking financial so much as people who have power) have access to data…

Would offer that making the data available for any and all in a “standard” format could in fact reduce the cost to the owners and because of the massive amount of data available would require someone to invest in the manipulation of the data. (I do this rather often, when I am posting on Govloop)

And the release of data, can affect many:

  • It is not ancient history, where the data from GSA had a significant impact on alot of federal employees granted some of it negative but alot positive as well. ….
  • The southern California city; incident the impact affected alot of citizens most of it positively, although a case could be made that some who were getting overpaid were impacted negatively. …
  • Been numerous cases, especially on the local level, where the release of contracting data exposed various levels of corruption …

And on all levels (federal,state, local, etc) how can one measure the cost-avoidance issue of the owners of the data NOT wanting to be caught with their “fingers in the cookie jar”

Profile Photo Chris Cairns

I’ve thought some more about this open data initiative. My take is that the creators of this strategy believe that entrepreneurs and for-profit and non-profit organizations will find ways to turn this open data into meaningful public, citizen-centric services. I think this strategy is really focused on that crowd directly — as an indirect means to service the public. In one sense, the administration is saying: “let’s stop assuming that we have all the answers and know what the public needs; let’s give them a platform to decide themselves.”

Profile Photo Henry Brown

Another reason for making Data open: …

And in this case would suspect that MAYBE the cost avoidance would make a significant difference …

Suspect that this might still be ongoing if california hadn’t compelled to make employment data public.

From CalPERS press release
CalPERS Slashes Pension of Former City of Vernon Official
Pension Fund denies membership to other officials

SACRAMENTO, CA – The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) today announced that it plans to reduce the pension of a former City of Vernon top official and deny six other officials all or part of their membership into the Pension Fund or their reported compensation used to calculate their pensions.

CalPERS is taking steps to cut the retirement benefit of former City Administrator Bruce Malkenhorst Sr. from $45,073 per month to $9,654 per month, following an audit CalPERS completed in April 2012. The action marks the largest reduction of a pension in CalPERS history.

CalPERS has preliminarily concluded that the outsized pension Malkenhorst Sr. has received since 2005 was illegally based on unpublished pay rates, overtime and an inflated longevity allowance. In accordance with the Public Employees Retirement Law (PERL), a pension allowance must be calculated on base compensation that is publicly reported, and benefits that are available to all similarly situated employees in the same group or class. Malkenhorst Sr.’s longevity allowance was 5 percent higher than any other City employee. Of the numerous positions Malkenhorst Sr. performed simultaneously at the City of Vernon, the City Clerk position was the only position that had a publicly available pay rate for a single position, and which did not constitute pay for duties in addition to normal duties, or overtime. The most recent and applicable pay rate for this position that CalPERS concluded met the definition of “pay rate” was reported by the City in 2005.

If Malkenhorst Sr. and the City of Vernon cannot provide documentation to prove otherwise, his new final reportable compensation will be $9,450 per month, and his pension will be reduced to $9,654 per month.

“Vernon’s reporting and documentation has failed to comply with the legal requirements necessary to justify these payments,” said CalPERS Chief Executive Officer Anne Stausboll. “It is an affront to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who rely on a modest CalPERS pension for a secure retirement. We fully intend to pursue recovery of all overpayments where we can.”

Profile Photo Robert Giggey

I’ve now seen two real cases of cost avoidance (i.e. savings) associated with OpenData at the municipal level. These come from a 311 agency and a transit agency that each had definite plans to release mobile applications for public use; however, based on the number and quality of 3rd party applications that sprung up after the release of their API based OpenData releases they are currently putting plans for those mobile apps on hold.

Cost avoidance was always expected to be one of the benefits of opendata, especially at the municipal level, but finding cases where there were actual budgets set aside for applications/websites that can now be redeployed for other projects is fairly significant, and is proving the concept of Government as a Platform to be achievable and worthy of consideration.

I also know of groups that are saving significant staff time through a reduced number of individual public requests for data by proactively posting large data sets to opendata catalogues. The reduction may or may not be documented, and only anecdotal for some, but I personally do not doubt the savings, especially when those groups are continuing to post more and more data purely for that reason.

There are other financial savings associated with opendata (tangible and non-tangible), but these are two of the clearest ones I’ve seen. One of the best cases I’ve heard; however, was the story about the Gov of Italy publically releasing citizens’ Taxable Income numbers and the subsequent number of tips they got warning of possible tax fraud from neighbours confused how someone with such low incomes could afford such nice stuff.