We’re Thinking About Open, Civic Data Standards

Open data standards are the talk of the civic hacking nation and this has me excited. It’s feels like a resurgence. I think a lot of folks are getting excited about open, civic data standards. That tells me it’s probably time to turn excitement into action in a collective way.

But if you’ve been involved with or otherwise following the open government data movement for the past 5+ years you might be wondering why all the fuss, now? What’s changed that has us climbing from the “trough of disillusionment” into the “slope of enlightenment” [1]?

The answer is critical mass + need. It might be that we finally understand what “high value” means in reference to data. I think it’s deeper than that. The reason that a bunch of cities are talking bike share standards is because a bunch of cities have new bike share systems. More importantly, people have practical questions they want answered. Which stations are malfunctioning? What is the up/down time? When and where is the most usage? How does my city compare with other cities (like mine)? The reason inspection data — like the health of restaurants and hotels or the safety of buildings – is important is because every city does inspections (or pays someone to do them). Vacant and abandoned buildings? Check. Business licenses? Public parks? Yep and yep. We’re even starting to see new companies form around these data domains, which is fantastic. We’re at a point where enough people know about open data that we can relate it from practice to theory, from a story we heard about open in data in a “some other” area to an understanding of how open data applies to things we already know and do.

Code for America CTO Mike Migurski recently wrote in a staff email about a needed shift in open data from nouns to verbs. He meant that we should stop thinking about data as objects, as ends, and start thinking about data as actions, as means. It’s not that Mike is the first person to observe this. I’ve long thought about data in terms of questions we want answered. How many crimes where there today? I’m sure plenty has been written by others on the topic, too. It’s the timeliness of Mike’s remarks that is significant. Mike also talks about adopting a capabilities-based approach and I hope he’ll have more to say on that.

We’re all trying to zero in on what matters. High value data isn’t the stuff that makes you look good for publishing it. High value data is what enough people care about enough to want to use. When that happens it’s in everyone’s interest to promote open standards. We’re seeing that start to happen with inspections, bike shares and more. Looking ahead, I’d like to see our government and volunteer networks working together to promote and implement open civic data standards where it matters. By working together we can use the power of the web to syndicate and aggregate open, civic data in ways that are locally, nationally, and internationally relevant.

As I keep my ear to the ground, here’s what data domains people are thinking about most (in no particular order):

  • Restaurant and hotel health inspections
  • Building permits and inspections
  • Real time buses (General Transit Feed Specification – Real time)
  • Business licenses
  • Vacant and abandoned buildings
  • Bike share
  • Crime
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Other city-owned physical assets (adoptable things)
  • Addresses + geocodes

Keep in mind when reading a list like this that it’s easy to fall back into the mindset of nouns over verbs. We’re not pursuing these fields because we can look at a noun (ex. “building permits”) and divine even a face value. It’s not until we want the capability to know how many and which buildings were permitted this year by location that we even care about building permits as data. And it’s not until we see that a bunch of cities want the same capability that we pursue a standard.

So, what open data standards do you care about? Share with us on the Brigade forum.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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