Is Open Data Sustainable in Your Community?

Which comes first, open data or open government? This question was posed at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent TransparencyCamp. The two-day event featured various outbreak sessions and thought-provoking messages from industry professionals. You can view additional coverage of the event here, “ICYMI: TransparencyCamp Event” and here, “Improving Insights from Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp“.

One of the TransparencyCamp sessions I attended featured the Sunlight Local team. The team members moderated an open conversation to discuss trends, themes, and best practices for local governments pursuing open data policy adoption in their communities.

The above variation on the classic “chicken-or-the-egg” conundrum framed a large portion of the discussion and sparked a variety of responses. Most participants agreed that the two – open data and open government – influence each other, and can be implemented simultaneously.

That said, some argued that there are strong political motives that drive open data adoption: candidates running for office often support open data initiatives to portray themselves as progressive and earn votes. After the polls close, the initiatives may die along with them.

Contributors to the forum, however, also identified some voluntary rationales for adopting open data policies:

  • To save money and cut down on FOIA requests
  • A desire to openly communicate with the public
  • To boost economic development and help businesses grow

After exploring why a locality may want to make their data open, the conversation moved to methodology: how can we find networks/leaders to spearhead the movement? There was a consensus among the forum that the key to jump-starting open data initiatives is found with in the local culture. Getting in-sync with the political and social landscape will reveal pertinent starting points and connections. One contributor from Montreal offered the following tips:

  • Collaborate
  • Recognize small steps
  • Be resourceful
  • Manage expectations

The tail end of the forum discussed sustainability and maintenance. Publishing the data or getting piece of legislation approved is only half the battle. But once the data is out there, how can we continue to keep data relevant and affect long-lasting change? The participants offered myriad pieces of advice, many from personal experience in their own municipalities. Here are five ways to make open data stick at your agency:

  1. There must be justified reasons to keep data fresh.
  2. Start with new hires in the public sector, and bake open data into the culture.
  3. Balance bureaucracy with positive political leadership.
  4. Keep data owners accountable.
  5. Extend co-creation into the community to instill a culture of change.

“Open data and transparency are not the same,” one participant remarked. While open data promotes civic engagement, economic development and technological advancement, some see it simply as a means to and end. “You can’t just use open data for the ‘wow’ factor,” another echoed, “or else real culture change won’t happen.” The goal should be to instill a transparent government environment, where there is access for all to all data.

This post wraps up my series on TransparencyCamp. For additional full notes and comments from this session, click here.

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