Special Report: Can Governments Keep Up Their Open Data Initiatives?

Open data may be cool, but is it useful, sustainable and cost effective?
May 31, 2012

By Wayne Hanson

About This Report

This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues local government IT professionals face.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.

Introduction

Open data may be cool, as some tech publications put it, but is it useful, sustainable, cost effective? After all, with an Internet full of data and information, how many people really are interested in machine-readable data sets of city or county expenditures, or the locations of public toilets, boat ramps or building footprints?

Most Americans first heard of open data a few years ago when President Barack Obama put stimulus finances online to avoid some of the problems that arise when tax money starts gushing into government programs opposed by political opponents — and thus subject to intense scrutiny, spin and the making of political hay.

About that time, Vivek Kundra — then-CTO of Washington, D.C. — decided to democratize district data, saying — in a Government Technology article — that he did it for several reasons: “No. 1 was to drive transparency; No. 2 was to engage citizens; No. 3 was to ensure that we were lowering the cost of government operations.” Kundra put hundreds of data sets onto the city’s website so the general public could easily access real-time feeds — in XML and other formats — of everything governmental. The district also sponsored the Apps for Democracy contest, which gave prizes to contestants who integrated the data feeds into useful apps. New York City and other cities followed suit, and open data seemed like a big deal.

Kundra took open data with him when he moved from the district in 2009 to become the federal government’s first CIO, and Aneesh Chopra — Virginia’s secretary of technology and another enthusiastic government transparency advocate — was named federal CTO.

But developments begin to cast doubt on open data’s sustainability. While Kundra launched the federal government open data site Data.gov, his successor in the District of Columbia announced that Apps for Democracy may be “more cool than useful” to citizens of the district, and so the program would be allowed to drop off the twig.

And even though the federal government’s Data.gov expanded to include more data sets, the lights dimmed in 2011, when funding for the program was slashed by 75 percent. So it evidently wasn’t high enough on the priority list to weather the nation’s budget crisis. Of course, teachers, police officers and many others across the country suffered a similar fate, so the jury is still out on what really matters. And while they left a legacy of transparency and IT innovation, both Chopra and Kundra moved on to other things.

According to Data.gov — which may be a bit outdated now after its funding was cut — 31 states and 15 cities maintain open data sites. Are they still “engaging citizens, driving transparency and ensuring we are lowering the cost of government operations” or are they doomed to fade into the sunset like so many other cool ideas?

We pick up the story there, as the U.S. emerges from the recession, and the baton passes from Kundra and Chopra to local governments infused with an enthusiasm for transparency, open government and open data.

Trust and Transparency

In a cynical age, in a highly polarized political climate, under the duress of a recession, trust in government has fallen to historic lows. Recently, according to The New York Times, trust in the federal government dropped to single digits. Public trust in state and local government is a bit better, according to a Gallup poll, but in such a climate, reports of government secrecy and abuse of power strike an ugly chord that can resonate broadly.

In 2010, for example, it was discovered that the city of Bell, Calif. — a Los Angeles suburb with about 40,000 residents — paid a $1.5 million annual compensation package to its city manager and enormous salaries for several other officials. Angry residents besieged City Hall. Staff members were recalled and indicted, and California now requires all city and county governments to report employee salaries, which are then posted on the Internet.

Contracts — in which taxpayer funds are used to purchase goods and services — have been another contentious issue that begs for transparency. According to an OMB Watch report last year, states are leading in that regard, while an audit of 10 federal agencies showed that none disclosed the terms of contracts. On the other hand, local jurisdictions like Frederick, Md.; Cook County, Ill.; and Louisville, Ky., have gone so far as to upload even their checkbooks to public view.

But building trust is only the first level of engagement for transparency. There is utility in data once it’s made available, and nothing beats utility like open data that can be captured, manipulated, compared, graphed, mapped and so on. Just as used items can be recycled into new products, data captured for one government purpose can be extracted, evaluated and compared, resulting in new ideas that reveal opportunities and problems heretofore overlooked. And there is even a higher calling for open data: democracy itself.

“The people of America need to start thinking of themselves as citizens again,” said Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America. “And if you’re a citizen, it’s not just about the benefits you get, but also about the responsibilities.”

For instance, Pahlka cited an open source software app that helps citizens locate and dig out fire hydrants when they are covered with snow. “Hawaii modified the app to use for testing tsunami sirens and Seattle is going to use it to clean leaves out of storm drains. Other cities are going to roll it out for a variety of things.”

Pahlka points out that one Code for America volunteer said: “I’m a citizen by choice here. We’re immigrants, and this country has been good to me and I believe the skills that I have as a Web developer are what I should be giving back to my country.”

From Electronic to Engaged

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