For several years now, open data has been a topic of various conversations in government circles. For a primer on that topic, please go here. As a practical example of what can be done, the City of Indianapolis has really taken this to heart and created a great foundational site for open data at: https://data.indy.gov. While it is challenging to create an open data portal and amass various data sets to meet privacy or regulatory requirements, just making the data available isn’t enough. The final Code for America Summit blog speaks to that idea.
Beth Blauer (formerly of Socrata – makers of open data software), the Executive Director of John Hopkins’ Center for Government Excellence, presented on data in government. As described, just “spewing” open data doesn’t achieve anything. There must be goals and a focused use for it.
The Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), outlines 10 steps to analytics training in government. Among the notable (and practical) ideas is to “pilot and iterate” (continuing the theme of iterative development). As anyone in government knows, creating a new program is very difficult. So starting small and being steady and methodical creates the best chance of success. Also a very practical piece of advice is to look to (and collaborate) with other governments. Open data is in various states across the country and the world. Some areas are further along and can help avoid common problems. Yes, every city and state are different but there are some common issues (privacy and regulation) that everyone must deal with.
When a city has embraced an open data strategy, it also must find real uses for it. We’ve seen many times that data sets may sit unused because most data people don’t really know that much about the issues and policies. Therefore, the policy and tech people MUST work closely together. Often times, excuses have been used to create an artificial separation between these groups: “…oh I don’t know a thing about data…” or “…just tell me what to do with the data…”. Both of these mind-sets are doomed to failure because the real insights are found when these two groups actively work on a real issue together. As the policy person sees some results, that person will immediately know if it is valuable or not…and they can – and must – provide guidance to uncover new and unique insights. What may look interesting to a data person may be obvious or “old news” to someone who has deep background in policy.
Further, civic groups or concerned citizens should also be brought into the mix. While a policy person may know about issues with government services, they may not have “lived and breathed” the service. By including and really collaborating with people who use the government services (real user-centered development), the chances of finding meaningful insights increase significantly. While it may be more difficult to really engage with the public, there are resources and help for this.
Providing open data is one thing…and its good. However, to really improve government services (which is the goal), technology, policy and the public must work together.