Have You Mastered Open Data?


The current open data movement came about approximately seven years ago. Hard to believe, I know. Early proponents called for open access to all government data. The impetus came from individuals wanting more transparency, accountability and a fuel for apps for the betterment of all mankind. So how are we doing?

Perhaps I am a bit cynical on this topic, as I have been involved with discussions around open data for nearly 25 years. It just wasn’t always called open data. And I was of course coming at the topic from the lens of geographic information systems (GIS). Back then we called it “Societal GIS.”  The community talked about the open exchange of data to stimulate collaboration on research. This was supposed to jump start projects through the exchange of data, as a means of having data available for emergency response and a wide range of altruistic endeavors.

My personal entrée into open data came through a public access kiosk at the City of Ontario, California’s public library. This was 1994. We provided this kiosk where citizens, regional governments and basically anybody could explore our data. We initiated an exchange with our neighbor, Rancho Cucamonga, California, where people could review their data as well.

Confident that the world would not come crumbling down if we lent out our data, we lent our GIS databases to the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Access project for regional planning collaboration. This project extended GIS to over 150 jurisdictions. We learned a couple of valuable lessons back then. Opening data for opening data’s sake was not enough. The data needed purpose and context.

We added a community development block grant research tool to help citizens and not-for-profit groups fill out their annual applications. For the SCAG project we sought to demonstrate how the exchange of information would build a fabric of continuous data that really aided in true regional planning. All this led to the City of Ontario putting out their GIS data in the form of context-driven applications – that was 1995. The world shifted focus and we found ourselves immersed in data catalogs, metadata, clearing houses, the geography network and eventually a searchable open data network.

Fast forward to 2017. The lessons we realized 20-plus years ago have resurfaced as standing the test of time. Kind of like the team that invented the computer mouse. They came up with a concept, put it away in a drawer and pulled it back out when a guy named Steve Jobs came to visit. And the world changed when he asked, “Can I have that?”

So, what have we learned and relearned after all these years? Well, for starters, the number one user of open data is an individual within an organization. That’s right, the technology that runs open data when turned inward can break down silos. Secondly, a benefit of opening data is government to government collaboration. Third, data without context does will not necessarily have legs. And finally, after revenue, expenditure information and employee salaries, map-centric data is viewed as most valuable.

Ultimately, opening data to your organization, other governments and to the public is the first step in building a smart community strategy. It’s a catalyst for so many improvements in government. And it does, of course, support transparency and accountability goals. We are recognizing that there are many governments that are taking these lessons to heart and are pioneering the next generation of open data. Cities like the Johns Creek, Georgia DataHub; Long Beach, California DataLB; Riverside, California, Open Data Portal; Loudon County, VA GeoHub; and State of New Mexico Community Data Collaborative are leading the way. What are common characteristics of these efforts? Well, here are a few best practices their sites deliver:

  • Identification and incorporation of cross-department datasets
  • Inclusion of neighboring government or agency datasets as a foundation for collaboration
  • Clear organization of data categories to assist in locating information that can jumpstart projects
  • Maps and data of top issues in an easy to understand context to spur apps and understanding of community priorities
  • Access to developer tools to help application programmers both internally and externally

Sometimes history repeats itself, sometime concepts evolve and sometimes things we put away for a while come full circle. Applying open data today will benefit bringing old concepts forward to meet modern demands – think the computer mouse. Are you up for the challenge?


Christopher Thomas 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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