city with data

Open data increases efficiency, not just transparency

Government agencies at all levels have adopted open data practices as a way to be more transparent, but these initiatives have also resulted in greater efficiencies for government itself, according to a new report from the Data Foundation.

Open data refers to the practice of publishing information in a non-proprietary, machine-readable, standardized format.

Working for government doesn’t mean it's easy to access to an agency's data, Justin Marsico, a senior policy analyst at the Treasury Department's Bureau of the Fiscal Service, told the Data Foundation.

“You might have access to it in theory," he said, but once the data is on an open website, "you can do your job more efficiently, because you don’t have to be a data expert, you don’t have to design a query to run against the database, you don’t have to get some kind of report and figure out how to interpret it. You can just go to the database yourself.”

Standardized open data also allows for interagency collaboration, which ensures everyone is speaking the same language, the report notes.

The Data Foundation credits the passage of the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act with bringing data standards to the federal government for the first time. The legislation established a governmentwide standard for spending information that can enable automated reporting.

The report does point to areas of improvement for open data, namely the data quality, standards and the current dearth of leadership.

The simple practice of opening datasets could be a good first set step to improving data quality. As people use the data more they can suggest improvements, the report said.

As for standards, the Data Act was a good first step, the report said, but further improvements to standards have been slow to develop. And programs that drive standardization, like the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) -- a tool used to eases “data communication across diverse domains" – risk losing funding and resources, it found.

“On a more positive note, those interested in NIEM had plenty of ideas about how, specifically given its cross-domain and cross-level nature, it could be funded and structured in the future,” the report said.

Improving leadership is key to spurring the culture change these projects require, but it has been a significant hurdle. Leaders must be able to persuade a diverse range of stakeholders to agree on standards for the common good, according to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Christina Ho, who worked on Treasury's implementation of the DATA Act.

"A data standard is inherently about giving up something for the greater good, which means giving up the way you’re doing it right now,” Ho said.

Read the full report here.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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