6 Steps to Open Data Success

Posted April 4th, 2013

By Siri Anderson

Perhaps you’ve read about the success of open data programs seen in Chicago, New York, San Francisco or other cities, in terms of lowered crime or financial transparency. You’ve heard about the increased efficiency and community engagement an open data program can bring. But, does getting started sound overwhelming?

Socrata has worked with many of these open data leaders. From our time with them, we’ve come up with six key steps to build an open data program. We hope that using them as a framework for your initiative helps make the process manageable, and it helps ensure all your bases are covered.

Step 1: Start Small

Transportation data. Financial records. Crime data. There are lots of places to start. But don’t get bogged down at the beginning with the number of data sets you could publish. Lots of initiatives we now look to as examples of transparency started small. In fact, many began with just one data set. Kansas City, Mo., the State of Missouri, and the United Nations Development Program all started by focusing on one high-value data set that they wanted to make available through multiple interfaces, like APIs, visualizations, and embeds.

The key is to focus on quality over quantity at the beginning. With just one new and useful resource available, your community will appreciate the first step toward transparency and information they can use.

Tip: Start with easy data sets first, those that are already available in spreadsheets or PDFs in the public domain. Then, expand their use to multiple interfaces, such as an interactive visualization or map. See more tips for starting small.  

Step 2: Focus on Transparency

Keep your eye on achieving transparency, an essential goal for most government open data initiatives. Start with the easy data sets. These are usually financial and personnel data, because they are typically standardized in format, well-organized, and available in multiple departments already. Once you have those published, you can move on to more complicated sets like ethics data, such as campaign donations and lobbyist salaries.

It’s tempting to avoid publishing certain data sets because you fear that they are not comprehensive or well organized enough. However, based upon what we’ve seen in the open data field so far, you get points from your citizens for being forthright. Transparency may be scary to some, but it’s worth its weight in citizen trust that comes as a result.

Tip: Think about building helpful visualizations and browsing filters to help people interact with and understand the data with little effort. For example, if it is budget data, a pie chart of budget by department might be helpful. You can then embed these charts on your website where they can be automatically updated. See more tips for achieving transparency.  

Step 3: Listen to Developers in Your Community

Developers in your community are essential for their creativity and honest feedback. By talking to them, you get a better sense of what sorts of data sets might be useful for apps. One way to do this is to host a meet-up group and just listen. How is their access to the data? Are there any other resources that would make app creation easier for them?

Be humble and collaborate! Your initiative will be all the better for it. Developers are key partners in putting your data to work and improving citizens’ quality of life.

Tip: Successful programs, like the NYC Big Apps competition and the Evergreen Apps Challenge have engaged developers in a community to build many successful apps for citizens. Learn from these models and put something like it in where you live. See more tips for working with developers. You can also see our guide, “How to Run a Hackathon.”  

Step 4: Increase Internal Participation

Getting all of your co-workers onboard can be one of the most difficult parts of launching an open data program. Everyone is strapped for time and often responsible for multiple job descriptions, so it may be difficult to get them excited about a large new initiative. Nevertheless, it is essential to win them over, because open data programs flourish with broad support.

The key message is that, in the end, an open data program makes everyone’s job easier. As you begin this work, ask about information bottlenecks in your agency’s process, and be clear about addressing them early on with your initiative. Your staff can be the primary beneficiaries of easier access to information achieved through this effort – be it through less duplication of efforts to easier collaboration with better access to data.

Tip: Showcase studies from other government organizations where their peers have transformed their business processes. See more tips for increasing internal support

Step 5: Optimize for Efficiencies and Cost Savings

How much would it save your organization if even 10 percent of high-touch interactions could be moved to self-service channels? In addition to increasing transparency and improving citizen experience, it also saves time and money when you move your data to an open data platform with automated updating. For example, the Oregon Marine Board significantly reduced time spent creating print resources and costs associated with publishing and distributing with just one open data project.

Your staff will have more time, money, and energy to spend on projects that require more individual service.

Tip: Look at the most common public information requests and see which of these may be easy candidates for data publication. Try to move these requests for information to self-service channels early on to free up time, resources, and increase both internal and external support for your open data initiative. Read more efficiency tips

Step 6: Pool Data with Neighboring Cities, Counties, and States

Once your data is published, it opens whole new possibilities for working with surrounding cities, counties, and states. Two-way exchanges of data, called data federation, with other jurisdictions is possible when data sets are published in standard formats, a key feature of an open data initiative.

The benefits of data federation are numerous, including easier sharing and comparison for citizens about quality of life in their surrounding areas. For example, the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois have been able to pool their data a single, citizen-friendly site, MetroChicagoData.org. Citizens are now able to get comparable information about their surroundings in one spot. Read more about the benefits of federation

Conclusion: Don’t Get Bogged Down By the Enormity

All of these steps can be taken in tandem with one another or in any order that suits you best. Think through what will work for your organization. If you get overwhelmed, remember to:

1) Ask for help and feedback. Get input from your colleagues and community members. Don’t get caught up in a top-down system. There are lots of great minds out there. Use them!

2) Build with sustainability in mind. Start small, start easy, and pick data that will be most likely to increase efficiency. This will in turn open up time to take on the more difficult tasks down the road.

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