• Opinion
  • January 4, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 3

The first decade of open data has been a win — but not for the reasons you think

Opinion: One unheralded benefit has been getting government to realise the value of its data

This piece was written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS and Ben McGuire, an HKS student. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


When data.gov launched in May of 2009, the site seemed to fulfil a vision of openness and rebuilding trust that defined President Obama’s first electoral campaign.

Sunlight Foundation co-founder Ellen Miller was ebullient: “it represents this enormous change in attitude about what public means. It means it’s online. It means it’s available. I think it’s a dramatic breakthrough in the role of government.”

It’s been almost 10 years since Tim Berners Lee — the inventor of the Web — asked the world to share its data and nine years since the launch of data.gov. Looking back, the open data movement has had an impact, but it isn’t the impact some thought it would be.

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We’ve seen a handful of sustainable, shiny apps and some increase in government transparency, with potential impacts on corruption and democratic engagement. While these developments have been important locally, it’s not clear that their impact has been transformative at a global scale.

The key benefit of open data is the culture shift it precipitated in the public sector. Open data convinced governments that the data they collect was a public asset with critical value, that that value should be shared openly, and that said value needed to be captured by public servants with the capacity to manage, analyse and deploy data in policy more frequently.

After 10 years of work, the open data movement is still dealing with a lot of the same issues. It still struggles to define the goals for open data programs and metrics that demonstrate success.

Big cities and national agencies have largely opted in, but participation at the state and provincial level is uneven to nonexistent. Open data programs still get started and maintained because of local champions; when those folks move jobs or locations, programs don’t survive.

And too many jurisdictions still think of open data success as a “put spreadsheets online” box to check, instead of focusing investments on proven demand and public value.

The American flagship data.gov and its parallels in national, state and municipal governments were billed as ways to open up democracy, creating a space where community hackers and app developers could turn fallow fields of government data into rich sources of public value.

And the open data world is filled with compelling stories and examples of how transparent government information gave us lots of new things.

There was the blogger who used New York City’s open data to prove in IQuantNY that the NYPD was repeatedly ticketing legal parkers. The FuelCheck app in New South Wales, Australia, that lets motorists access real-time fuel prices at stations across the state. Citizens in the US can now use GovTrack and Councilmatic to get unprecedented access into national and local government processes. Mexico City’s Air Quality Index provides residents with an neighbourhood-level hourly tracker for breathability.

For every success, there were 10 projects that failed to launch. But the fact that open data could serve as a platform enabling this kind of innovation is a demonstration that the movement has created something both interesting and useful.

The problem is that even exciting anecdotes like those listed above remain just that — anecdotes. When it comes to public policy impacts, there are few scaled, sustainable examples. Analyses of open data are difficult to replicate across jurisdictions, and impacts often so diffused that it’s hard to measure the true value.

The as-yet hidden but dramatic success of open data has been a transformation of public officials’ attitude toward data

As a result, the benefits of open data are trapped in a long tail. The aggregate impacts may be great — indeed there are millions of decisions, from public transit to school choices, made every day that are informed by open data.

However, identifying and collecting them into something that is coherent and recognisable as public value is frustratingly difficult. Open data advocates are left with the Sisyphean task of chronicling disparate successes.

The as-yet hidden but dramatic success of open data has been a transformation of public officials’ attitude toward data. One of the most important impacts of open data was it convinced governments that their data was an asset with real value.

This is not to say governments would not have eventually recognised the value of data. But without the open data movement the conversation would have been controlled by vendors and third parties.

Indeed, city leaders might only have realised the value of their data after it had become effectively privatised and owned by vendors and companies.

Maybe the chief and largely unheralded benefit of the open data movement was getting government to realise data was an asset, and doing so from a perspective of transparency and public value, as opposed to one that should be privatised and monetised.

Mayors, governors, and agency heads approached the prioritisation of datasets for publishing based on their value in openness and the interest of citizens — and citizens got a platform to express their desires and goals for public information.

The other unanticipated, but largely unheralded, benefit of the open data movement was governance and internal use. Forward-looking governments, now sensitised to the value of their data, developed internal capacity for data management, analytics and reporting — a set of individual skills and organisational competencies with enormous long-term value.

Without the open data movement the conversation would have been controlled by vendors and third parties

The need to open up public data forced jurisdictions to learn how to map their data assets, and how to manage them efficiently. They learned how to benefit from new internal data sources — and the first and biggest customers remain internal analysts and practitioners who are slowly but surely turning data-informed government into more efficient and effective public services.

In many if not most jurisdictions, open data portals and analytics teams often went hand-in-hand. If it has been disappointing to open data advocates that new data sources didn’t transform the public sector overnight, we can absolutely be confident that the skill sets and management attributes of today’s governments make them well-placed to evolve and improve their use of data.

For governments, a decade is a often a relatively short period of time. The fact that, today, hundreds of national governments, federal agencies, state and provincial governments, and municipalities around the world have their own open data programs speaks to the appeal of the idea of, and the ideals behind, open data.

Some early boosters have been disappointed in slow progress; others marvel at what has been accomplished. It may be that open data did not provide the level of transparency we would have liked, or spurred the level of public engagement many sought, but it has had a significant impact on the policy and government landscape.

By both educating officials about data and injecting that discussion with public values, open data help shape a much more important and bigger debate: the governance of data and technology across our governments. — David Eaves & Ben McGuire

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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