Filling open data’s empty ‘Field of Dreams’

Nine years after the government introduced Data.gov, the promise of open data remains an open question for federal agencies. While data transparency has worked well and provided citizens with easier access to information, it has not yielded the anticipated influx of hungry start-up businesses seeking to capitalize on the market for open data solutions.

Unlike Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams,” agencies are finding that just because you build it, it does not mean that they – the innovators – will come. As such, agencies must take it upon themselves to revitalize their open data efforts and, in the process, improve services, decrease costs, and increase citizen engagement and satisfaction.

Here’s how.

Focus on delivering high value data presented in context

Agencies’ open data plans have traditionally consisted of taking raw data that is part of the public record and posting it without context, but this approach can be detrimental. Some data may be of low value or even irrelevant. Releasing all of it can clog up systems, resulting in bad user experiences.

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Worse, raw data presented without context can lead to confusion and even distrust. New York City officials experienced this when they used a GPS map to show areas that would be plowed after a major snowstorm but faced public backlash when they failed to provide context as to why those areas were chosen.

Agencies should focus on creating a plan for disseminating high value data and adding contextual insights. The public should be able to interact with the data and understand what it means, rather than just having it presented to them as dots on a map, as was done in the New York case. Analytical solutions and data visualization tools can help bring open data to life for citizens.

Create internal and external advisory councils

Addressing what data should be made available is yet another challenge. While data must be open, it must also be relevant to citizens. Agencies must also respect their citizens’ privacy rights.

Internal advisory councils can help mitigate privacy concerns. They can establish regulations on what data can and should be considered open based on legal and privacy guidelines. Internal councils can also ascertain who will ultimately determine and arbitrate any potential disagreements over data distribution.

Meanwhile, external councils comprised of people embedded within local communities can guide agencies to distribute only data that is considered high value by citizens. Many agencies will simply put information out there since it is public record, but that approach can create a lot of unnecessary clutter. Getting the pulse of the people can help diminish the amount of irrelevant data that agencies put forth, thereby freeing up technical resources and reducing the amount of non-essential information presented to citizens.

In fact, requiring agencies to establish external advisory councils is something the Commonwealth of Virginia recently considered when drafting the Open Data Initiative Act. While this requirement is not included in the recently passed legislation, it’s likely that agencies will still adopt this idea on their own and without being tied to specific legislation, they’ll have more flexibility in how they implement such a council.

Partner with established private sector companies

There has been relatively little activity in the private sector to support open data initiatives, and the anticipated boom in startup companies clamoring to place a claim in the market has not occurred. This has forced government agencies to take on the role of data distributors themselves – with very limited success.

The problem with this approach is that many citizens do not realize the information they need is available to them through federal, state or local sites. They do not bother looking in those places. Even if they do, the thought of downloading yet another mobile app or hunting through a government website is likely to be unappealing.

To address this obstacle, agencies should consider presenting data through applications their citizens are already using. Partnering with larger companies that already have established web platforms is the way to go. Companies like Google, Waze, Zillow and other providers of popular mapping applications offer ideal platforms for the delivery of location-specific citizen data. They have familiar and intuitive user interfaces, and millions of users.

This approach can be a win-win for both government and industry. For agencies, working with large corporations can offer the ability to provide information through already established solutions that are continually updated and supported.  For companies, the ability to offer citizen information gives them another feature to monetize.

The promise of open data remains very real. Putting information where citizens can find it themselves can lead to significant cost savings and improved efficiencies, while providing citizens with greater access to services and relevant information.

But to realize that promise, agencies must stop equivocating open data with the “Field of Dreams” mentality. They must forgo hosting their own services and hoping for small companies to deliver innovations on the open data front. Instead, agencies should seek to proactively create open data strategies, form internal and external advisory boards, and engage with the right businesses to give the people what they want.

Jake Bittner is the CEO of Qlarion.