Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Apps - Leading the Way in Civic Engagement

There are several factors which make municipal Open Data portals and policies successful, but the number one factor is civic engagement. Without the public actually requesting and using the data provided by the government, there would be no growth, no drive for these programs.

Now the average citizen does not have the technical knowledge to understand the raw data provided in machine-readable format. But with the rise of mobile apps, information from open data can be applied in a way that the large majority of the population can understand and make use of.

Government initiatives, like one in Queensland, Australia, offer cash prizes to developers who can use Open Data to create apps which are useful to its constituents. These apps are judged in 4 different categories, but all revolve around benefits for the public. One such app which has been created for this contest details where all of the hidden speed cameras are located in Queensland. This contest not only creates excitement around open data by inspiring developers to create apps – the best way to increase civic engagement, but also brings the open data policies into the public eye, encouraging public participation.

Here in the US, there are non-profit groups, like The Knight Foundation who provide funding for start-ups who are using Open Data for the improvement of the relationship between governments and their citizens. There are two programs from the most recent distribution of funds from the Knight Foundation that stand out for their ability to engage communities with Open Data. The first is called Open Gov for the Rest of Us and it uses open data from the Chicago portal to provide more information to residents of low-income neighborhoods on foreclosure, immigration, crime and schools. This is not only an app, it also incorporates a drive to increase online access in those low income areas. This is an entire civic engagement program – using the open data of Chicago to improve the lives of the constituents and encouraging them to be more involved in the type of data released by the government. Another program that received funding from the Knight Foundation is a simulator that gathers open data from the IRS and Census Bureau and governments in order to analyze the effects of public policy. For instance, this simulator could be able to project the impact of a tax hike on a state’s education budget. This increases accountability for government institutions while increasing civic engagement.

Not all apps are so large-scale. The City of Raleigh Open Data program has released datasets which makes it possible for the RGreenway App to display and integrate the trails and parks in Raleigh, NC. According to, the datasets provided through that portal have lent themselves to 349 citizen-developed apps and 137 mobile apps. It’s clear that the datasets from these Open Data portals are being used in a variety of ways and there are many apps being created that increase civic engagement.

There is, of course, a long way to go before the public is completely, actively involved in any open data programs. But the best, most effective way to increase the use and interest in released data sets is to turn them into apps-  currently the most effective way to get citizens interested in open data.

- Katie Berryann 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Open Data Charter - Why it's a Big Step for Open Data

This week, the G8, an assembly of world leaders representing eight of the eleven largest national economies in the world, collectively representing over 50% of global GDP, strengthened their commitment to Open Data initiatives by signing the Open Data Charter. This Charter laid down five principles to which any open data program should adhere. These principles extol the benefits of Open Data while solidifying the intent of these countries to grow and maintain successful open data portals. They begin with the assertion that by 2015, all data should be open by default. The commitment of the G8 to these principles extends beyond Government and public institutions to any organization, public or private, with data sets. If the G8 countries stick to the Open Data Charter, this could increase accountability and therefore the trust between governments and their constituents. Of course, this trust will only grow if the municipality in question operates with the maximum amount of fairness and efficiency. 

How can Open Data increase governmental accountability and trust?  An open data policy will allow taxpayers to see where their money is being spent.   In Finland, one man developed and published a “Tax Tree” to display this information. The British "Where Does My Money Go?" shows the distribution of their tax money.  An open data policy would increase efficiency in the government as well. In the case of the Dutch Ministry of Education, once they released their data, inquiries from the public decreased. This allowed for less labor time for answering those inquiries and frees up those resources to focus on other problem areas. A woman in Denmark re-used data from Denmark's Open Data portal and created a site displaying the location of all of the public toilets in Denmark. In this case, Denmark's Open Data policy increased the government's capability to deliver services by enabling citizens to solve problems themselves.

In order for this Charter to be effective and ramp up the spread of Open Data, the G8 countries must prove themselves strong leaders for each of the five principles named in the Charter. They'll need to have a strong commitment to releasing quality, non-personal data to the public and proving that it's useful to constituents. If the countries themselves can maintain this on the federal level, it will encourage implementation of open data policies on the regional and local levels. These programs will become more widespread as an increasing number of citizens notice the benefits of having a government that is working to become more efficient and accountable to its constituents. This strong commitment, if the G8 can diligently execute it, will increase efficiency, capability and even trust of the governments of these countries.

- Katie Berryann

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What is Open Data and Why is it Important?

At the beginning of this year, President Obama signed an executive order, requiring federal government agencies to have their data available to the public and machine-readable. Without commenting on the effectiveness of this order, or the percentage of agencies who follow, we should still note that for the United States, this was a big step towards bringing open data policies further forward into the public eye. There is still a long road ahead before Open Data is a household term, as well as much more to be accomplished at not only the federal level, but also the state, city and country government levels. Open Data Solutions is dedicated to establishing, cultivating and maintaining these government open data initiatives. Before the establishment of an open data portal, however, it is important to understand what Open Data really is and why it's important.  

What is Open Data? “Open Data” is a policy in which governments release their raw data in machine–readable format. This data is unbiased, with no previous analysis and has been collected using tax payer money. From here, government open data initiatives take this data and provide visualizations to make this data easily navigable and understood by the public. Visualizations can be in the form of spreadsheets or interactive maps or charts – however the data is best displayed. These government initiatives are driven by involvement of their communities. Citizens can request data sets, anything from crime records to environmental data to broadband speeds. This civic engagement is vital to the success of an open data portal. 

Open Data vs Open Government
Open Government and Open Data are similar but are not the same thing. Open Government is a policy which promotes "transparency" but instead of the raw, machine-readable data, Open Government data is released in pre-analyzed, proprietary formatting. While this is technically "transparency" of data, it doesn't allow for the data to be shared and used in any way but how it's released. Open Data has many more uses than Open Government data. 

The Many Uses of Open Data
Because Open Data is raw data, and more data sets can be requested, the possibilities are endless. The Open Data portals that are most effective use their data in ways with which citizens can easily interact. For instance, the City of Chicago lists all crimes from 2001 to present. Another successful portal, the City of Raleigh, shows all parking in Raleigh - public and private. This data, collected by the government with tax payers' money, is now available to the public in an easily understood format. Any dataset can be requested and with Open Data, citizens have the resources to be safer, more knowledgeable constituents. 

- Katie Berryann