Governments need to use open data as a strategic asset, expert says

During last week’s Gov 2.0 Summit, Open Government Expert David Eaves sat down with CivSource to discuss open data initiatives at the state and local levels of government. Mr. Eaves suggests that significant strides need to be made in both government culture and strategy before the widespread benefits of open data can be realized in sustainable ways.

Monday morning an interesting question was raised on the E-Democracy.org-hosted CityCamp Exchange forum. The question was simply, “Where are we a year later,” on open government data initiatives?

In September 2009, the National Association of State CIOs published, “A Call to Action for State Government: Guidance for Opening the Doors to State Data.” In it, it captured a screenshot from Data.gov, which indicated only Utah, California and the District of Columbia as having websites with access to machine-readable data.

Although the 2010 map boasts more white than color, the picture has been filled in with a respectable list of city, state and international governments jumping on the bandwagon. But despite the ongoing fanfare of the last year, the open government data playbook is far from making it through its first few edits, one observer notes.

During last week’s Gov 2.0 Summit, I sat down with Open Government Expert David Eaves to discuss open data initiatives at the state and local levels of government. Mr. Eaves suggests that significant strides need to be made in both government culture and strategy before the widespread benefits of open data can be realized in sustainable ways.

“I think we’re still really early in the evolution,” Eaves said. “But that’s not to say it’s not exciting. There’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of exploration – a lot of different models have been tried out. Some of them are becoming extinct quickly, but others are thriving.”

Mr. Eaves says there are three camps of governments: a majority that are completely unaware of open data; governments who do not see the inherent value in providing data to the public; and yet another group who are walking blindly into open data without considering a strategic path forward.

“There is a small minority that gets it, and an even smaller subset that really know what they’re doing.”

Right now, Eaves believes most government organizations need to redefine how data is used and perceived within a cultural context. He says data is seen as a by-product of what government does. “It’s something that happens as a result of something else that government is doing. Often it’s not even seen as valuable.”

To explain this concept Eaves referenced the wildly divergent path of two major retailers: Wal-Mart and Kmart. One is arguably the largest company in the world and the other is having to file for bankruptcy protection. The difference, Eaves maintains, is that Kmart sees itself as a retail firm, while Wal-Mart sees itself as a data management company. “They measure everything. They don’t see data as a byproduct of retailing – they see it as a core asset and then use that data to do better, smarter business.”

“Right now a lot of governments are following the Kmart model. Data is this byproduct of what we get after delivering the soda pop of services out of the government vending machine.”

Benefits beyond citizen engagement, empowerment?

Although making government data widely available and machine-readable has a growing case history of positive citizen benefits, an often-overlooked advantage of open government is to staffers and public servants, themselves, Eaves said.

“We have public servants that have to jump through innumerable hoops to get access to data the government is creating.”

Eaves said the biggest users of open data portals are going to be government employees – most of whom work are siloed into various agencies or work in differing jurisdictions altogether. Their jobs could become easier, and made more effective, if they are finally able to tap into the data their own or other organizations collect. A simple example of this comes from Vancouver where an application called VanTrash was developed using trash route city data. The application is not just used by 3000 households, but city staff are using it to answer questions or troubleshoot complaints related with garbage collection across the city.

“If you design and architect a system that satisfies the need of a citizen, you have by default a system that will satisfy the needs of a public servant,” Eaves said.

Time will tell how different governments approach these and other challenges, but if Monday’s announcement by the City of San Francisco to require open data by law is any indication, 2011 promises to be another expansive year for open data.

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