Reinventing Government with Open Data Is No Joke
This (long) post is in response to the blog post by Tom Slee, titled “Why the Open Data Movement is a Joke.” Every once in a while, an article that dismisses Open Data as irrelevant, a joke, or a pipe dream catches our imagination and compels us to chime in, even though thoughtful people we respect like David Eaves, Alex Howard and Tom Lee have already weighed in on the issue (here, here and here, respectively). Some people might dismiss our views as self-serving and profit-motivated. We are after all, a for-profit technology start-up that has chosen to focus on enabling Open Data from a technology standpoint, by providing a turnkey, purpose-built, cloud-based platform that government organizations around the world use to share their data.
Or, one might consider that we are a team of people who care that our technology enables positive change. Reinventing government with Open Data is not an empty slogan we use for marketing. It is a promise we make to our customers. Numerous government organizations share in this vision and have trusted Socrata to help them achieve it. We felt it would inform this debate if we shared the all the different ways that our customers are using Open Data as a platform for innovation. So yes, we are biased, but we do have a a unique perspective and a viewpoint that was shaped by working in the trenches, as part of the Open Data community, since 2008.
First, let’s not conflate Open Data with Open Government
The first point has to do with the definition of Open Data. Since it is a broad term that describes a nascent and rapidly-evolving movement (sic) it lacks the structure and definition of more mature concepts, like e-Government. This makes Open Data easy to love and easy to criticize at the same time. In this regard, Tom’s post is helpful because it challenges the community of advocates, activists, volunteers, developers, entrepreneurs and government leaders who participate in shaping Open Data’s future to be crisper, more purposeful and grounded in our approach.
The first problematic assertion that Tom Slee makes: that is conflating Open Government with Open Data. The two are related, but not the same (See the opening graphic in Alex Howard’s article to visualize the distinction.) In our view, an Open Government strategy needs to include Open Data as a component of enabling transparency and engaging citizens. However, Open Government is also about a commitment to open public meetings; releasing public information in all its forms, if not proactively at least in a timely fashion; engaging the public in decision making; and it is also a general mindset, backed up by clear policy, that citizens need to be empowered with information and a voice so they can hold their government accountable.
At the same time, a good Open Data strategy should support Open Government goals, by making structured data that relates to accountability and ethics like spending data, contracts, staff salaries, elections, political contributions, program effectiveness…etc. available in machine- and human-readable formats.
This brings us to the second incorrect statement that Tom Slee makes. He states that:
The Open Data movement is doing nothing for transparency and accountability in government
This is simply not true. Let’s take Ethics.gov, for example. It is a great government-led example of enabling the public to easily search 7 different sources of information on lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in the U.S. federal government. At a more local level, Chicago’s public performance management program provides every performance indicator about city services in easy-to-understand, interactive charts, in addition to raw data and programmatic access via APIs (more on APIs later). Here is one such example:
Another striking example of Open Data for transparency is the City of Chicago’s publicly-available and detailed lobbyist data, which Derek Eder, a local developer, used to build this fantastic app.
The State of Oregon, like many of our customers provides checkbook-level expenditure data from all its agencies. It’s important to note that Oregon’s success is in part due to their embrace of Open Data as a Platform, instead of merely providing a download of their expenditure data. The distinction is important. The former transforms data into an active ingredient of a service delivery pipeline. The latter is entirely divorced of any ability to deliver service.
Beyond transparency, Open Data directly impacts our quality of life
Opening up weather data, or GPS data or TIGER data had nothing to do with transparency, nor was it labeled Open Data at the time. It had everything to do with releasing a vital layer in the information infrastructure that we all depend on for the quality of life that we now enjoy. The same is true for new types of data that are being released under the Open Data banner: realtime crime data in Seattle neighborhoods, restaurant inspection data in NYC, new permits and licenses, zoning changes, property taxes in Baltimore, foreclosures and abandoned buildings in Chicago, San Francisco’s 311 data, national or regional product recalls, radiation levels as a result of the Japan earthquake, the effects of the Oil spill in the Gulf, and the list goes on.
Making this information available in ways that ordinary people can easily access, interact with, make sense of and contextualize is at the heart of the Open Data movement. There is real innovation happening here in terms of building the new digital infrastructure that supports the flow of information between governments, citizens and businesses.
Open Data helps governments become more efficient
If the previous argument was about expanding citizen access to vital information, this part of the argument looks at the supply side of the information flow and the costs of delivering online services to constituents. Let’s take the State of Oregon as an example. In this video case study, the team from Oregon gives two concrete examples of how they are doing more with less, by leveraging Open Data as a platform to deliver online services more cost-effectively. The Secretary of State office, one of the state agencies, is embracing news ways to manage and deliver online databases for trademark applications and business registrations in the state. By turning the experience into a self-service online model, they expanded access for their customers and improved their own productivity at the same time. A win-win scenario.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the federal government, is using Open Data as platform where the same nationwide database of treatment facilities is accessible via multiple self-service channels, including ubiquitous SMS. This illustrates two important aspects of innovative approaches to Open Data: reusing the same information across channels and multiple citizen interfaces (economies of scope) and leveraging the power of cloud-based APIs to connect the different interaction channels with the data.
Open Data APIs, the plumbing for Digital Government
The digital world we live in and the online services we consume and use very day are connected together via Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs for short. Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps are just three examples of powerful API-enabled services that people use on other sites, often without realizing they’re interacting with the service via APIs. In a recent article in Programmable Web, Adam Duvander predicts that every company will have an API. This prediction is supported by the explosive growth of APIs in recent years, shown in the graph below:
Source: 5,000 APIs: Facebook, Google and Twitter Are Changing the Web, by Adam Duvander. Programmable Web, 2012.
Why then, would we accept that the public sector, which represents approximately 40% of our economy, would remain isolated from this wave of API-enabled innovation? It should not be.
The most popular API category from the last 1,000 APIs is government. In total, we list 231 government APIs and nearly half of them have been added in the last four months. Many looked to 2009 and 2010 as the years of government’s embracing transparency. That was true in terms of opening up many gigabytes of data. However, it appears 2011 and 2012 are the years where that data becomes easily consumable in bite-size chunks, something that APIs make much easier than Excel files.
APIs are a fundamental part of the Open Data fabric, which is why every dataset that Socrata customers put online, is automatically API-enabled. We can argue that some don’t need to be, but the point here is that Open Data APIs are enabling the next wave of innovation which is all about connecting government data with apps and online services, in real-time and at scale, which only APIs can support. This is the Next Big Thing in the evolution towards a Digital Government.
The final point that we’d like to raise is the assertion by Tom Slee that Open Data is not a movement. We are not experts on what qualifies as a movement, but if you follow #opendata on Twitter, or go to any hackathon, app contest and CityCamp that happen every week around the world, you’ll quickly realize that Open Data has captured the imagination of thousands of people. Most of them donate their time and skill to advocate for more openness, scrape data and curate it so they can put it online, build apps that deliver social value, do the research and write thoughtful papers about Open Data and its impact. Many of them are government employees who travel on their own dime, and spend a weekend with civic hackers building something worthwhile.
Is that a movement? Is this all a joke? One way to find out is to go out there, get involved and contribute something.
Thanks for reading this long post.
Kevin Merritt is the Founder and CEO of Socrata.